A Healing Touch


Jane Hubley helps refugee children heal the wounds of war

By Lauren Pongan '09
Photography by Fred Field

On the phone with an Arabic translator and sitting next to an Iraqi refugee, school social worker Jane Hubley ’76 told the translator, “If you help me, I’ll help her.” The refugee—the mother of one of Hubley’s sixth-grade students—and Hubley took turns on the phone speaking with the translator as Hubley explained the logistics of moving the student into a junior high equipped to help English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The junior high would be the student’s latest stop after fleeing Iraq for Syria.

“It’s difficult for many Iraqis who were middle or upper-middle class in Iraq, but then they arrive here with nothing,” Hubley said.

“Here” is the East End Community School in Portland, Maine, which, like many public schools in the United States, is home to a newly diverse population of refugee students from around the world. 
Jane Hubley
Social worker Jane Hubley ’76 with a few of her students at East End Community School in Portland, Maine. Hubley works with children new to Maine and the United States, including many from families resettled from refugee camps. The new arrivals have different needs and offer new challenges for educators.

In 2008 alone, according to the U.S. State Department, more than 60,000 refugees have come to the United States. They bring with them memories of experiences that few of their non-refugee classmates could imagine.

“Some of these kids had seen people murdered or had seen people having their eyes drilled out,” said Hubley. She recalled how puzzled she initially was when some of her refugee students began rummaging through other students’ lunch bags—until she realized that while in refugee camps they survived by scavenging for food. “Refugee children, more so than any normal kid who moves somewhere, have the trauma of their experiences as a challenge of integrating successfully into a new environment,” said Jake Kurtzer, a congressional advocate for Refugees International. Kurtzer prescribes increased funding to adequately address children refugees’ issues through services such as Hubley’s social work.

For the refugee students and counseling staff, like Hubley, it’s a new and sometimes daunting challenge. “The way a school might typically work is you send the social worker the bad kids, the naughty kids, the sad kids,” she said. “But you get a refugee population and they’re sad all the time, and you might not know that.”

It’s Hubley’s job to know, and to do that she moves through the school daily, connecting with the school’s nearly 430 students, almost half of whom do not speak English at home. Hubley takes what she calls their “emotional temperature.” “If I was an old-fashioned social worker,” she said, “I would sit in my room and the teachers would call me when the kids would explode.”

Instead Hubley tries to meet students’ emotional needs before serious problems arise. That takes constant interaction and, as a result, she knows all of the students by name—and has heard firsthand their stories—and the trauma of their experiences.

Hubley has responded to her students’ needs with creative and often nontraditional approaches to social work. “In her social work practice, Jane does not do the easy thing, but she does the right thing,” said Ken Kunin, principal of Deering High School and Hubley’s former colleague. “Countless times she has taken the extra time to connect with a student, to seek out a parent, to take time to inform a teacher, and to problem-solve with colleagues.”

Hubley feels strongly that respecting children’s autonomy is essential to helping them to feel emotionally and physically healthy and to heal traumas from their past. “Another thing that I believe is that the kids are people. We shouldn’t be controlling them,” she said. 

In what she calls “guerrilla social work,” Hubley mostly walks the halls to make herself available to students. “I like to be totally present so that kids can grab me and say, ‘I need this. I need that,’” she said.

Another nontraditional outlet Hubley wants to use is play writing. “I think the way to get people to understand the trauma of refugees is through art,” said Hubley. She is writing Bus 61, a play about the personal stories contained within a single school bus, as a way to facilitate the understanding of refugees’ problems.

Given Hubley’s history of activism, it seems natural that she would be drawn to helping refugees. While at Colby she was half of a two-person sit-in to protest a lack of private women’s health care. She recalled protecting a social event organized by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender group on campus, to prevent harassment of members. “Like the refugee population, initially I didn’t realize [the GLBT students] were in danger,” said Hubley.

Hubley’s first love is art history, but when she took a job at the St. Mary’s Home for Girls, in Manchester, N.H., she discovered the rewards of helping others. She went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration in 1983.

For her sabbatical next year, Hubley is enrolled in the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University, which may include a hands-on component for helping victims of trauma in Africa.

“There’s a human condition and we join it,” she said, “and we are responsible for what we know. We can’t fix things, but we cannot add to the suffering.”
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  • On July 13, 2009, Norman Hubley wrote:
    Jane is the oldest of my six children (she has 3 sisters and 2 brothers) and we are all so very proud of her. Her mother, who is the reason Jane is the wonderful person she is, died in 1991. She too would feel the same.
  • On July 16, 2009, Rene Martinez wrote:
    Jane, I remember your warm heart at Colby. You were a great friend, a caring and loving person. I see nothing has changed!
  • On October 21, 2009, Fleur Hopper wrote:
    I'm so glad I finally got to read this:) Jane, you're awesome!!!