Aisar Al Awad knows little English, but three words he spoke last week made Griselda Garcia, who works for Fresno Unified School District’s Language Assessment Center, burst into tears.
“I was giving him a test, and he said, ‘Thank you, American.’ I said, ‘Oh, you’re welcome, it’s OK,’ ” she said. “He gave me a hug, and then the rest of them came to me and gave me a hug. An older one said, ‘America is good; Syria is bad.’ Children should not have to go through these things.”
Fresno Unified has enrolled about 20 Syrian refugees within the past month, mostly coming from Turlock or Modesto, which were designated refugee resettlement sites through the International Rescue Committee.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, has been working with the school district and other local organizations to prepare for an influx of Syrian refugees, who have been trickling into the Valley for about four years.
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He expects hundreds more to head to Fresno within the next year, pointing to its established Arab community and immigrant services. Fresno has a long history of being home to refugees – from those fleeing the Armenian Genocide in the early 1900s to Hmong families escaping persecution after the Vietnam War.
“Fresno has a great responsibility over these families,” Nekumanesh said. “They are not going to be a burden on anybody. We’re not importing terrorism or terrorists as some people would like to claim. These people literally ran from the very terrorist we claim to be fighting.”
‘I made it here’
Mustafa Al Mohmoud, 10, has just started the fifth grade in Fresno, and he says he likes everything about America, except for bacon. Since Mustafa, who is Muslim, told his translator about his concerns about eating pork, the school has accommodated his and other refugees’ meals. To show his appreciation to his teachers, he often says one of the few English phrases he knows: “Thank you so much.”
As one of the oldest refugees at his school, he seems to have taken on a big brother role, pinching the cheeks of the younger ones and answering the translator’s questions on behalf of the group.
“He says he plays football and gets food and has parties. He loves all these things,” says Adnan Amin, who is translating Mustafa’s Arabic into English.
Amin, who came to the U.S. three months ago from Aleppo, which has been devastated in the Syrian civil war, has become an unlikely resource for Fresno Unified. In between the process of getting a work permit, Amin, who was a teacher in Syria, volunteers his time as a translator and tries to explain to officials what the children may have gone through.
“It’s even worse than anyone could imagine. What you see on TV or Facebook, what is happening there is even worse,” he said. “My city, it’s been destroyed. It’s almost nonexistent. I made it here, but millions of Syrians are just stuck there. They just don’t have any other alternatives.”
It’s even worse than anyone could imagine.
Fresno resident Adnan Amin
Amin has enrolled his children, 9 and 10 years old, in Fresno Unified schools. They attended advanced schools in Syria, and they and Amin speak fluent English. But the transition still has been challenging at times.
His son wept for days after recently sitting through a history lesson on the Sept. 11 attacks, struck by the familiar Arabic scrolling across the screen on the TV footage. “He said, ‘Muslims did that. This cannot be. I am Muslim. I feel sorry,’ ” Amin said. “I said, ‘It’s not your fault,’ but he wouldn’t listen. He just kept crying. He felt like he was not wanted or welcome.”
Amin’s children no longer are allowed to read stories about their homeland after – like many people – being horrified by the haunting photo of Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year-year-old boy injured in the war in Aleppo.
“They say, ‘I don’t want to go back to Syria. I don’t want to be like Omran,’ ” Amin said. “I cannot involve my children in talking about what’s happening in Syria.”
Amin wants to help because he considers himself privileged. Many of the refugees who have fled to America don’t know any English, and many children have not attended school in years because of the war.
“They can’t find their own way. They don’t know how to do a Google search or anything,” he said. “A lot of families don’t understand what is going on, what’s required of them, how to enroll their kids in school. All these things are a big deal. I’m ready to help with anything. I can translate, I can do anything to make it easier for these kids.”
A familiar challenge
Counselors, social workers and English language specialists from Fresno Unified met with Amin and Nekumanesh on Thursday to prepare for a possible influx of young Syrians.
Students are being assessed so they can be placed into the appropriate grade level, while administrators are trying to track down immunization and other records. Documents are being translated into Arabic, and teachers are seeking information about the students’ culture.
But there are other obstacles some schools haven’t even begun to address, such as evaluating students’ mental health after trauma.
“We feel privileged that we get the opportunity to serve these students because we know that they’ve had to endure much more than any one of us has had to endure in our lifetimes,” said Maria Maldonado, the district’s assistant superintendent for English learner services. “We’re helping them heal, but who they are should not be forgotten.”
Melanie Halstead, who matches Fresno Unified students with translators, said some of the new students are visibly stressed.
“They were just so afraid,” she said. “Think about being in a new culture and not being able to express your concerns.”
We know that they’ve had to endure much more than any one of us has had to endure in our lifetimes.
Maria Maldonado, Fresno Unified School District
Nekumanesh urged school officials to not let the language barrier deter them from making connections. “You have to treat every student with the same care and mercy and compassion,” he said. “One way is to not be afraid to approach them.”
In many ways, Fresno Unified is well equipped to deal with refugee students. The district, where white students are a minority, boasts about its diversity, pointing out that 76 different languages have been represented in the district in the last five years.
In 2004, the district even opened an entire school to help Hmong refugees: The Academy for New Americans, which has since closed.
“Fresno Unified, and Fresno as a city, has been a place where many immigrants come, myself included,” said Maldonado, who left Mexico when she was 13. “We know how traumatic it can be, coming from a very different world to this beautiful country that has taken us, so we want to be ready.”
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said his staff can handle it, but the political climate is more charged this time around, pointing to the upcoming presidential election. The district would not allow The Bee to disclose where many of the students are attending school or living, citing safety concerns.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got a political environment at the national level that is painting various groups of people with very broad brushes, and we’re really concerned about individual kids and their families,” Hanson said.
“We’re very sensitive to the heightened emotion around refugees from certain parts of the globe at this time, but people coming into this country has always been what’s made it great, so we expect this to be no different.”