Syrian refugee children continue their education at public schools in U.S.
EL CAJON, Calif. — Twelve-year-old Abdulhamid Ashehneh sits at his desk at a suburban San Diego middle school. He tries not to let his mind wander to the painful memories of his life in civil war–torn Syria.
His father disappeared suddenly four years ago. The family believes he was killed. Months later, Abdulhamid's mother boarded a bus with her six children, the youngest age 2, and fled to Jordan, the sound of bombs ringing in the distance.
"I think about my Dad a lot," Abdulhamid said recently after practicing English at Cajon Valley Middle School, which has seen the arrival of a large number of Syrian children. "I wish he would come back."
Majority Of Syrian Refugees Are Children
Abdulhamid is like many of the Syrian refugees arriving today in the U.S. Nearly 80 percent of the more than 11,000 Syrian arrivals over the past year were children, according to the U.S. State Department.
That's a larger percentage than most refugee groups. Part of the reason for this is that Syrians tend to have larger families and many have managed to stay together despite having to leave their home country, according to resettlement agencies helping the families adjust to the U.S.
Many of those children are enrolling in public schools around the country. These places include Chicago; Austin, Texas; New Haven, Connecticut; and El Cajon, California. The town received 76 new Syrian students the first week of school.
Syrian children face many of the same challenges as other young refugees, such as speaking limited English and having their education interrupted. However, they are unique in terms of the kind of emotional pain they have experienced, school leaders and resettlement workers said.
Schools Are Making A Big Effort To Reach Out
"The truth is, a lot of them have seen some pretty nasty stuff," said Eyal Bergman, a family and community engagement officer for the Cajon Valley Union School District. "But I also see incredible resilience."
In response to the flow of new students, school districts are increasing English instruction. They are also making extra efforts to reach out to parents unfamiliar with the U.S. school system. In El Cajon, one-on-one meetings introduce families to the school's teachers and staff and show them basics like how to read the district's academic-year calendar.
Some refugee students are enrolled in "newcomer" classes where they are provided intense English instruction before being placed in mainstream classrooms. Others go directly into classes with English-fluent students but are assigned to smaller groups for individual instruction. Teachers are trained in identifying students who have been through difficult emotional experiences, and on-site counselors help students who need extra attention.
"I've had students tell me that maybe some of their family members passed away," said Juanita Chavez, a second-grade teacher. "But I think a lot of them just want to focus on here, on learning. A lot of them don't focus on the negative things that have happened to them."
At night, Arabic-speaking staff and teachers hold a "parent academy" where newly arrived moms and dads are given bilingual, or dual language, children's books in English and Arabic. The parents are guided on how to help improve literacy at home.
Presidential Nominees Disagree On Refugee Program
The rising number of Syrian refugee students comes amid a heated presidential campaign. During the second debate, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton's plan to expand the Obama administration's refugee program and accept 65,000 Syrian refugees the "great Trojan horse of all time." The term "Trojan horse" comes from a myth where Greek soldiers hid in a large wooden horse in order to defeat the people of Troy.
Last November, there was a deadly Paris attack believed to be carried out by operatives who fought and trained in Syria. In response, nearly 30 states vowed to deny entry to Syrian refugees.
Resettlement agencies and school staff worry that angry and dishonest political statements about Muslims and Syrian refugees will trickle into the classroom. A report last year by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations found 50 percent of Muslim students surveyed were subjected to mean comments or rumors because of their religion.
El Cajon, a city of roughly 104,000 people 15 miles east of San Diego, has become a melting pot of refugees from Uganda to Afghanistan. The first Middle Eastern immigrants were Chaldean Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq in the 1970s. Those earlier, now-established waves of migrants are playing a role in helping settle the new arrivals from Syria.
Trying To Move Forward
Watching her children learn English and adapt to U.S. schools has made up for bad times in the past for Abdulhamid's mother. For two years in Jordan, she often struggled to feed them and at one point lived in a feeble tent that would blow apart in the wind.
"We're still trying to cope with this emotionally," said Amena Ashehneh, 37. "But it's the reality. We have to face the reality and get on our feet."
As Abdulhamid assimilates, he still misses his homeland and the life he left behind.
He remembers the Damascus home where he wrestled and practiced reading with his father. He remembers playing soccer and hide-and-seek with his best friend, and wonders what happened to him.
He also thinks about his computer and a remote-control car — cherished toys his father gave him and that he had to abandon.
"I feel so sad I left Syria," said Abdulhamid, whose expression quickly shifts from joy to grief. "Because it's my country. My home."