2 immigrants face challenges from disparate angles.
Published: Monday, June 28, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 13:06
As Iraqi refugee Sama Hatita walked through the cafeteria line of John Marshall High School, she found more than food, she also found discrimination.
Though she could barely understand what two girls behind her were saying, she knew their comments were directed at her.
Tired of being their entertainment, Hatita decided to end their insults.
"If you don't stop, I'll go tell the office," Hatita said, hoping her words would end the war of scrutiny she was experiencing in her new country.
"Well, you can't do anything," one of the girls said. "This is my country!"
Hatita could not hold back her tears.
Now, two years later, Hatita, a former English as a Second Language student, can talk about her experience of dealing with discrimination and problems adapting to American culture.
During the 2009-10 school year, the Northside School District had 732 immigrant students attending elementary, middle and high school, said Pascual Gonzales, executive director of communications.
At Marshall, the school has three full-time ESL teachers and recently hired two more part-time teachers because of the growing number of students.Last year, 90 students enrolled in ESL classes at Marshall, according to the school's academic dean Terri Wroten.
Hatita, 20, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, where she dreamed of getting an education, but after the U.S. invasion of her country, it was too dangerous for her family to stay.
The family moved to Syria, where they spent four years living in a refugee camp, but Hatita's dream never faded, and she dreamed of returning to Iraq to continue her education.
It wasn't until danger reached her family, that they finally decided to look for help.
"My sister was kidnapped for several days," Hatita said. "It wasn't until we paid the rescue money, that they led her go."
The risks were far from being over when Hatita's dad survived a murder attempt by unknown assailants.
Fearing for his family's safety, Hatita's father contacted the United Nations, explained the situation and asked for refuge in the U.S.
Even though she did not know English, Hatita was determined to get her high school diploma in the U.S. and eventually go to a good university.
She wants to become a pharmacist, but when the administration of her new school noticed her age, Hatita's path to her dream became obstructed.
"They tried to persuade her to get a GED instead of the high school diploma," Family Services Association case manager Pamela Espurvoa said.
"This girl has inspired me, because regardless of the dangers she faced in her country, she was determined to get an education," Espurvoa said. "You have to consider her background in her culture. They're used to hearing ‘no' and immediately accept it. That's why I came to help."
Hatita said, "I am taking summer classes because I need to catch up. It's a lot of work. We do a week's class work in a day and I feel embarrassed because I'm not as fast as the others."
On the upside, Hatita admits not everybody is cruel and there are people she identifies with.
She thinks discrimination develops through unexpressed thoughts and teens misunderstanding cultures different from their own.
She doesn't wear her traditional headpiece much at school any more, but when she does, she favors one with a black cotton fabric covered with white piece signs on it.
The high schools with the most immigrant students are Clark, Marshall and Brandeis. Students also may continue with their ESL classes during the summer, with sessions held at Brandeis high school.
The rapid increase of immigrants also can be seen outside of school. The NISD learning center offers classes for adults interested in learning English or attending GED classes that also are taught in Spanish.
The struggles of immigration can be crucial in a teen refugee's life, but not all students have difficulties adapting to the dominant culture.
Buddha Nepal, 18, a Bhutanese refugee, confirms his experience wasn't as bad as others he has heard.
"[My experience] was good, I never really felt teased or picked on. There was only one time when I heard two girls at math class murmuring things about me, but I always stayed positive and never took it personal," Buddha said.
A recent Marshall graduate, Buddha, was enrolled in an ESL class for only six months because he learned English in Nepal in a refugee camp.
"In the refugee camps, we had teachers and my schooling started when I was 6 years old," he said.
"The only thing it was hard for me to adapt to — learn to speak with American tongue," he said. "I still have some accent."
Buddha in contrast with Hatita had no problem graduating, and in two short years, he earned his high school diploma.
"I wanted the toughest chemistry class," he said. "Back in Nepal, they teach us all sciences in a year, and for me, it was easy to get in chemistry Advanced Placement (classes)," he said.
He plans to go to university to study nuclear engineering.
Buddha also wants to give back to the resettlement community and researched how he can help students aged 18 through 21 attend school. After an incident in which his sister wasn't allowed to enroll in school because of her age, he helped six other students enroll at Tom C. Clark High School, refusing to leave until administrators admitted them.
He also helps the Catholic Charities of San Antonio Refugee Resettlement Program by teaching little kids words in English.
He teaches them their numbers and colors.
And he teaches them how to persevere; regardless of the challenges, they might face in their new country.