Struggling To Ease Painful Memories of a Faraway War

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Dearborn, Mich.

As his 4th grade teacher demonstrated an upcoming science experiment, Ali Roomy was trying to make himself disappear. Stretching up the front of his white turtleneck until it covered his eyes, he pulled his arms out of their sleeves and wrapped them tightly around his 11-year-old waist.

Ali does this when he's feeling overwhelmed, something that's happened often since the night his home in southern Iraq was bombed by Saddam Hussein's army in 1991. Although he ultimately escaped without serious injury, Ali said he remembers being left behind in the burning house before rescuers pulled him to safety.

"When I think about it," he said later, "it hurts a lot."

Such pain is familiar to a growing number of newcomers to Dearborn, a Detroit suburb still dominated by the car company founded by native son Henry Ford.

Like Ali, these refugees fled Iraq after the Persian Gulf War and came to the United States as part of a resettlement program launched in 1992. With its large and well-established Arab community, Dearborn has become a magnet not only for the thousands of such refugees the government resettled in Michigan, but also for others originally sent to other regions of the country.

Most of them, including Ali and his family, are Shiite Muslims who took part in the abortive 1991 uprising against Saddam. Though it was encouraged by the United States, the rebellion was quickly crushed by the Iraqi leader. Afterward, many of the displaced families endured months or years in the Saudi Arabian desert before joining the more than 12,200 refugees in the Rafha camp there who have been resettled in America.

Given this unsettled history, children of these families often arrive at school with a daunting array of problems, including lengthy interruptions in their schooling. Despite the ample experience that educators here have with children from the Middle East, this latest wave of immigrants is putting them to the test.

"Some of these kids have lived through real horrors," explained Gary Wolter, the principal of Lowery School, a predominantly Arab-American K-8 school here that has absorbed many Iraqi newcomers. "They've witnessed family members beheaded, women raped--whatever horror story you could think of, they've seen."

Cultural Context Familiar

Dearborn has long been a magnet for Arab immigrants, and its 16,500-student school system is in some respects well-positioned to absorb this latest influx. Some of the district's 28 schools feel as much like the Middle East as the American Midwest.

At Salina Elementary School, which Ali attends, 97 percent of the students are of Arab descent. Bilingual classes in Arabic and English are offered at every grade, most girls and their mothers wear a traditional Muslim head covering known as a hijab, and Arabic conversation echoes through the corridors.

Moreover, many other students enrolled in the district--including Lebanese, Yemenis, and Palestinians--have recently fled armed conflicts. Some teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals also have their own, wrenching war stories from hot spots across the region.

"If you go to any building in the district you will be able to find somebody who can interpret the culture and communicate in the native language of the children," said Wageh Saad, the district's coordinator of bilingual education.

Despite these advantages, however, educators here often feel very much alone as they struggle to understand their new arrivals and to meet their complex needs. It is a challenge complicated by the volatile relationship between the United States and Iraq--one that neared the boiling point last month over the issue of United Nations access to suspected weapons-production sites.

"We are sort of working independently trying to figure out what is the best way to approach this, given the unique needs of our population," said Gail M. Milburn, the social worker at Salina Elementary. John Clay, the psychologist at Lowery School, agrees. "Nobody is set up to deal with war refugees," he said. "You feel like you are reinventing the wheel."

Since 1995, Dearborn's schools have absorbed more than 620 new students from Iraq. Because that influx stems directly from U.S. policy, Superintendent Jeremy M. Hughes said he wishes that more federal help were forthcoming. He said the district gets $100 a year in federal aid for each refugee child, a figure he called "highly inadequate."

"Frankly, our resources are stretched thin," he said.

Insight Comes in Flashes

For educators in Dearborn, windows on their students' pasts sometimes open at unexpected moments.

Such was the case last Veterans' Day for Sonia Beydoun, a language arts and social studies teacher at Lowery, during a ceremony that included a traditional 21-gun salute.

When the shots rang out, she recalled, a boy in her class "fell to the ground and started crawling."

Ms. Milburn had a similar experience at Salina while she was in class observing a boy from Iraq.

"A little girl came up to me and said that when she was in Iraq men would beat her mother and take her babies," Ms. Milburn said. "This was just out of the blue. She didn't know me, and I didn't know her."

Mr. Clay said refugee children sometimes show signs of the kind of post-traumatic stress often seen in combat veterans. In class, he said, their behavior may range from highly aggressive, defiant, or impulsive to anxious, depressed, inattentive, nonresponsive, or even suicidal.

"I notice a lot of overly emotional students who take things too personally," Ms. Beydoun said. "They get upset easily."

How to address such problems has proved a conundrum for school employees. When he did some research on the subject, Mr. Clay said, he came up with only sketchy information.

As a result, said Lowery Assistant Principal Dawn Eule, school officials didn't have much to offer when other districts turned to them for advice. "The perception was that because we had so many Middle Eastern children, we knew what we were doing," she said. "We were faking it real good."

Since then, Lowery's response has proceeded by trial and error, Mr. Clay said. Urging children to draw pictures of their past was among the more effective early efforts, he said. But an approach that proved less successful was to encourage students to lay bare their painful memories.

"They wept uncontrollably," recalled Hassan Dakroub, a counselor at the school. "They told horror stories. It got out of control."

Now the school's counseling staff is taking a different tack. Instead of "debriefing" students about traumatic events, teachers and counselors are discouraging them from dwelling on the past. During weekly group sessions, educators seek to redirect their students' thoughts to the present.

"There are a few kids who have been really psychologically damaged," Mr. Wolter said. "But for the vast majority, it has really helped."

Safety Message Stressed

An overarching theme in helping children who have weathered a war, administrators here say, is to make them feel safe.

That message is central to guidelines that Mr. Clay and his colleagues developed to deal with the possible outbreak of new hostilities in Iraq. Although the prospect of such conflict has diminished for the moment, school officials know it could increase again at any time.

The guidelines urge teachers to "have students talk about how much safety there is in their lives here in the U.S." Other advice includes discussing "the tragedy of war," maintaining a normal routine, and reassuring students that the U.S. government will not put them in internment camps.

Parents, meanwhile, should limit their children's exposure to scenes of war in the news media and assure them of their safety, the guidelines advise.

But administrators are aware that events outside their control often undermine the safety message they attempt to impart. For one thing, children are often keenly aware of violent crime in the United States, especially when it involves Arab-Americans. For example, 11-year-old Ali cited a recent murder of an Iraqi refugee during a gas-station robbery in Dearborn as a reason he does not feel safe in America.

Moreover, some parents remain preoccupied with conflicts in their homelands--a phenomenon exacerbated during times of heightened tension. Parents having a hard time adjusting may have particular trouble shielding their children from such concerns.

"The children are the sounding boards for the parents," said Andrea Awada-Amen, the assistant principal at Salina.

Partnership Helps School

That this is the case in the Roomy family was apparent during a recent meeting in Ms. Awada-Amen's office. When the administrator asked Ali's 7-year-old brother, Hussein, how he feels about Saddam, for example, the boy replied after coaching from his father in Arabic that he hates the Iraqi leader.

Still, the handsome, dark-eyed 2nd grader said he would rather return to Iraq than stay in the United States.

"If America will kill Saddam, we can go back," the boy said.

Mr. Roomy himself said through an interpreter that he is bitter not only at Saddam Hussein but also at the U.S. government for failing to provide more support for the 1991 uprising--feelings of betrayal not uncommon in southern Iraqi refugees.

He said he never really wanted to come to America, and worries profoundly about supporting his family once his eligibility for public assistance runs out in the near future. The former oil-industry worker said he cannot work because of health problems and lacks the money to apply for citizenship, which could entitle him to extended benefits.

Such complex problems are beyond the ability of school officials to sort through on their own. Salina Elementary joined forces in recent weeks with a prominent Arab-American community organization to provide counseling at the school three days a week. The Roomy family is among the first to take advantage of those services provided by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, known as ACCESS.

The services include psychological counseling, which school officials say many Arab immigrants shun from fear that it will stigmatize them as mentally ill. "They can come to our school and for all their neighbors know, they're coming to meet with the teachers," Ms. Milburn said.

In referring families for such services, Ms. Milburn said educators are "concentrating at first on those families who are having the most difficulties, and most of those are Iraqi refugees."

'Children of the Desert'

These include the families of three 5-year-old boys--all from different nuclear families but all first cousins--in Melissa Swider's kindergarten class at Salina Elementary School.

Members of their extended family call them "children of the desert" because they were born at Rafha. Their parents report that two of the boys spent months in the hospital there after suffering from severe dehydration brought on by a shortage of clean water at the camp. Ms. Swider said those boys lag developmentally and adjust poorly to new people or circumstances.

"When you take them out of their environment, they become nervous wrecks," the teacher said. "They get literally, physically shaky."

During a recent home visit, Ms. Milburn explained to the children's parents and grandmother the new on-site services available at the school. Before agreeing to take advantage of that counseling, family members described harrowing events they had lived through and said their children still suffer nightmares from their ordeal.

"Sometimes it's just a combination of everything, and the kids are in really poor shape," Ms. Milburn said. "It's really hard to get them socialized, let alone to get them to achieve academically."

Because of its large Arab community, Dearborn is attracting some refugees who face especially large hurdles in adjusting to American life, said Lavinia M. Limon, the director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' office of refugee resettlement. These may include highly observant Muslims or those who are having trouble crossing the broad linguistic and cultural divide to find jobs.

"Those families and single men who do have trouble assimilating end up moving to Dearborn," Ms. Limon said. "It is not representative of all the Iraqis that have come."

Still, those who work closely with the refugees in Dearborn say the picture is not all bleak. Many students have made great strides, they say, and are adjusting admirably to their unfamiliar surroundings.

"These children have something to offer," said Ibrahim Atallah, a counselor at ACCESS. "They've faced tons of challenges in their lives, and yet they've survived. "

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  • The non-profit Council on Islamic Education works with textbook publishers, educators, and curriculum developers to help insure that schools present students with an accurate picture of the Islamic world. It hosts a briefing paper on "Teaching the subject of Islam and Muslims" in non-Muslim schools on its Web site.
  • The Council also publishes both a handbook for educators called "Teaching About Islam and Muslims in the Public School Classroom" and a series of teacher's notes about Islam.
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