Almost a year ago, with her family newly arrived in Modesto after a nearly two-year journey as refugees from violence in Syria, then 17-year-old Alaa Al Jawabra listened as her father told their story through a translator. Today, the hardworking senior in the Davis High School Language Institute has progressed so far in learning English that she helps translate.
Tuesday afternoon, the Al Jawabras – father Abdulhamid; wife Nadin; daughters Alaa, Noor, Aya and Hala; and son Ali – welcomed into their home guests including friends from World Relief Modesto, the nonprofit agency that led the family’s resettlement. The occasion was to have the Al Jawabras reflect on their past year as they prepared to watch themselves Tuesday night on television – they were the focus of a “Nightline” special report by ABC News anchor David Muir titled “Flashpoint: Refugees in America.” The show is available online at abcnews.go.com.
Muir was in Modesto when Aya and Hala enrolled at Chrysler Elementary School and Alaa and Noor entered the Davis Language Institute. Little Ali, now 4, will start transitional kindergarten next year. The ABC film crew returned a couple of times during the year, looking primarily at the children’s progress in school. And that progress is dramatic.
Near the start of the year, then-first-grader Hala would simply nod when her teacher asked her to repeat the names of colors. Later in the year, footage shows her belting out “This Land Is Your Land” as clearly and loudly as any classmate. As for Alaa, Language Institute Director Lindsey Bird selected her last spring for a Spartan Award, an honor each teacher gets to bestow upon an outstanding student.
When it comes to music, we had two performances last year, and I’m not kidding you, she was the loudest singer. She knew every word to every song.
Victoriah Avugwi, Hala’s first-grade teacher
Victoriah Avugwi was Hala’s first-grade teacher – her first formal teacher, period, since the little girl didn’t attend kindergarten while her family was in Jordan after escaping Syria. Avugwi, who still often sees her former student on the playground, recalled a recent encounter: “She was standing by me and looked like she wanted to say something.” Hala’s English still is forming, so she took time to find the right words, the teacher said. “She said, ‘When I was in Jordan, I didn’t go to school.’ That was a pretty wonderful sentence for someone only in the United States for a year. Those little conversations are just amazing to me; we worked on her ABCs together and now she’s speaking in sentences.”
At Davis High, Bird said Alaa and younger sister Noor both are doing well but “definitely have different personalities and goals. Each is living her own life.” Alaa is extremely academic, Bird said, and her reading, writing and speaking scores show she’s made as much as five years’ progress in less than a year. “We were able to pump up her coursework within three months” of her arrival, the instructor said.
“Noor, her English has come a little slower and I believe she desperately thinks in her mind that she will be returning to Syria, so the urgency to learn English is not there. I think Alaa has the more realistic understanding that most likely they will not return to Syria, and if so, just to visit.”
Bird believes Alaa also has realized that mastering English will be a tremendous benefit no matter where she ends up living.
Alaa is a leader not by talking, but through her actions. She shows what’s possible for all students. We have students from 38 countries, and she’s that really good example when we say that through hard work, you can accomplish anything.
Lindsey Bird, director of the Davis High School Language Institute
Abdulhamid said he could see returning to Syria if his native country was at peace, but he’s embraced America as home. He and Nadin have made observations similar to Bird’s regarding their daughters. An Ad Council article on the family included this line: “Glancing at her daughter’s eyes glazed to the computer screen, Nadin joked, ‘Alaa wants to study pharmacy, Noor wants to study Facebook!’ ”
But Noor said she is very comfortable and happy here, and trying to learn. And Alaa said she and her sister have been welcomed at Davis High and experienced no prejudice. She’s rarely asked about her faith, said Alaa, who offered an example of an instance when she was: “One time, girl came to me and asked about my religion. She said, ‘What’s your religion?’ I said, ‘Islam,’ and she said, ‘That’s cool.’ ”
Abdulhamid said since his family has been in Modesto, it’s encountered no hostility and has been largely untouched by the fear and anger many Americans are expressing over the nation’s admittance of Syrian refugees.
“I took them to Kohl’s to get some stuff and to the mall,” said a family friend and translator, who asked to be identified only as Sam. “Cashiers been really nice, they try to help. They know they are new here. They’ve been seeing a lot of people with scarves, you know.” And anyone following the news knows there have been more refugee families coming into the country, Sam said.
Of course, none of the family was in the audience at a November meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors at which tea party members urged supervisors to do anything they could to block refugee resettlement here.
Alaa said a typical week for her and her siblings includes a lot of studying and frequent trips to the neighborhood park, where they play basketball and soccer. She’s also enjoying American pop music, including Hannah Montana (yes, she knows that’s Miley Cyrus) and Justin Bieber.
He’s trying to learn every day. And now since he start driving, he knows most of the streets better than me, especially side streets because they used to take the bus, and when you take the bus, we only know how to go from point A to point B.
Sam, Al Jawabra family friend and translator
And while she’s pleased with her academic progress, she said it really hasn’t been that hard. “Was a little harder at the beginning because I didn’t know anything English,” she said. “I didn’t talk anything, just I knew the numbers and alphabet and some easy words. That’s it.”
Advancements haven’t been as easily charted for Abdulhamid, whose English classes aren’t as intensive as he’d like and who remains unemployed. He had a recording studio in Daraa, Syria, and has skills in production, electronics and computer programming. But the Modesto market has few opportunities in his field, and language remains a barrier.
Getting his driver’s license was a big step, he said through Sam. “He’s looking forward to do something,” Sam said. “We’re gonna try to find some kind of business, restaurant, Middle Eastern restaurant, something.”
So far, Abdulhamid said his greatest reward has been helping relatives and other Syrian refugee families get on their feet in Modesto. Abdulhamid and Nadin have helped them shop, Sam said, and have prepared meals for families who are in motels and therefore can’t cook.
Abdulhamid is very smart, Sam said. But like many English language learners, he understands more than he’s able to communicate himself. “I told him get the newspaper every morning and read. It’s coming along, it’s going to take time. ... He will be there, all of them will be there. They’re doing good.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
World Relief benefit dinner
When: Oct. 14, 6 p.m. doors open, 7 p.m. dinner, 7:30 to 9 p.m. program
Where: Family Life Pavilion, 1325 12th St., Modesto
Info: The event, “A Night to Stand for the Vulnerable,” includes hors d’oeuvres, dinner, dessert and cultural entertainment. Tickets are $50. To purchase, go to www.worldreliefmodesto.org. For more information, email Sarah Kashefi at firstname.lastname@example.org.