Equity & Diversity

U.S. Schools Work to Help Iraqi Students Catch Up

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 16, 2010 8 min read
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Seven years after the United States went to war in Iraq, schools in this Southern California community are trying to figure out how best to educate hundreds of children displaced by the conflict, many of whom missed years of schooling.

The United States started to accept large numbers of Iraqi refugees in 2008. Since then, more have come to El Cajon than to any other American city. The two school districts here enrolled about 1,600 over the past two school years.

For districts such as the Grossmont Union High School District, the biggest challenge has been trying to help Iraqi teenagers who arrive without any credits get a high school diploma. El Cajon Valley High School is enrolling a steady stream of 16- and 17-year-olds who lived in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or Turkey after they fled sectarian violence in Iraq.

The United States has received 35,000 of the estimated 2 million Iraqis who left their homeland because of the war and related strife. Some missed school because public schools in the countries where they initially landed turned them away or the children had to work. (“The Lost Years: Iraqi Students in Jordan,” March 5, 2008.) Even if they continued their schooling, many came to this country sans academic transcripts.

“That just isn’t what they thought to pack,” said Erin Richison, the director of programs for English-language learners for the 20,200-student Grossmont Union district.

Interviews With Iraqi Refugee Students and School Leaders

Meanwhile, the Cajon Valley Union School District, a K-8 system with 15,700 students, almost overnight created “newcomer centers” for English-language learners and has expanded offerings in adult education to help refugees learn English. After 25 Iraqis enrolled in November 2007, Izela Jacobo, the district’s coordinator of ELL programs, stepped in to teach the separate class for English-learners until teachers could be assigned to it.

For the most part, Iraqis here view their children’s schooling as a bright spot in their resettlement experience. Some find the American approach to education refreshing and say they feel welcomed by educators.

But in El Cajon, as nationwide, many Iraqi refugees are unemployed—an experience they share with some 14.9 million Americans in the soured economy. After the eight months of federal benefits allotted refugees run out, the refugees find themselves on welfare. Even well-educated ones who are fluent in English and worked for Americans in Iraq say they haven’t found jobs.

Hospitable Community

El Cajon is a draw for Iraqis because Middle Eastern culture already has a strong foothold here. As the nation’s top city for Iraqi resettlement, it has received nearly 5,000 since late 2006, according to the U.S. Department of State. Ms. Richison said federal officials told her, “This is just the beginning.”

Many Chaldean Christian Iraqis immigrated to this suburb of San Diego in the 1980s and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and established a thriving community. They founded two Chaldean Catholic churches, where masses are given in Chaldean, a form of Aramaic, as well as Arabic and English. They opened restaurants that serve kabobs and hummus, and they run grocery stores.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, men in a restaurant on Main Street played backgammon and drank tea while listening to an Arabic news show broadcast from Dubai.

Scott Patton instructs Ruaa and her classmates on a project during English class at El Cajon Valley High.

Many of the newcomers to El Cajon, which has 98,000 residents, are Chaldean and joined relatives here, but they also include other Iraqi minority groups, such as Sabians and Syrian Christians, as well as Muslims.

While educating Iraqi children with schooling gaps is a challenge, El Cajon schools have put some on the path to graduation.

Milad, 19, arrived here in November 2008, one month short of turning 18, without any high school credits. He subsequently passed the state’s exit exams and expects to graduate from El Cajon Valley High School next January.

Lacking Credits

According to Cliff Moss, a consultant for adult education at the California education department, districts can enroll 17-year-olds with few high school credits or send them to schools for adults.

Milad reviews his schoolwork while chatting with his brother Yousiff in earth-science class at El Cajon Valley High School.

El Cajon Valley High enrolls students who are nearly 18 if they can show a record of good attendance, grades, and behavior, said Marlene Ames, the academic adviser for international students.

While teenagers can attend adult school in El Cajon, a couple of Iraqis said it’s a mismatch since most participants are middle-aged. They wish the Grossmont Union district offered a special class or school for refugees arriving in their late teens with education gaps.

That decision, said Mr. Moss, is up to districts, but with California in a severe budget crisis, he surmises the money isn’t there for such a program.

Milad left Iraq for Lebanon when he was in 8th grade, before taking two of his final exams..

In Lebanon, Milad at first missed half a year of school. Then, a charity paid for him to take private English classes. The following school year, his parents sent him to a private school. Because he’d been educated in Arabic, and the instruction in Lebanon was in French and English, he was put in 5th grade. Milad, then 15, hated being the only teenager in classes with 10-year-olds. “My mom said, ‘You have to go. You have to learn something,’ “ he said.

Resources on Iraqi Refugees

2010 UNHCR Iraq Operations Profile by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

“Refugee Crisis in America: Iraqis and Their Resettlement Experience,” from the Human Rights Institute, Georgetown University Law Center.

“Iraqi Refugees in the United States: In Dire Straits,” from the International Rescue Committee.

“Refugees from Iraq,” from the Center for Applied Linguistics.

After tolerating one school year in that arrangement, he attended a public school to study automobile repair, where classes were in Arabic and his classmates were his own age.

Now, Milad wants to get a college degree. He has racked up high school credits in a short time by taking courses after school at Grossmont Community College. He goes to class or studies most days from 8 a.m. to midnight.

Pressed for Time

When Iraqi teenagers enroll at El Cajon, they’re placed in the same grade as their peers, regardless of how many credits they have. So a 17-year-old gets “senior” status. The student may stay in high school for an additional year. Then, though the high school may make a few exceptions, he or she is expected to move on—with or without a diploma.

For some students, it will be hard to graduate in that time.

Seventeen-year-old Yasmeen, for example, enrolled two months ago. She said in Arabic, with another student interpreting, that she missed 3½ years of school while living in Syria, after leaving Iraq. Instead, she worked putting decorative studs on clothing.

In better shape for earning a diploma from El Cajon Valley High is 15-year-old Ruaa, an Iraqi who attended private schools in Jordan from 2006 to 2009, after her father, Raafat, sent his wife, Qanal, andtwo daughters there. In her first school year in El Cajon, she’s already conversational in English.

The Grossmont district permits Ruaa and other newcomers to earn regular English credits for their English-language-development classes, which are based on California’s language arts standards. El Cajon Valley High offers classes in modified English for the newcomers, restricting their schedule to English, math, and an elective until they acquire the basics of English.

In a recent English lesson, Ruaa’s teacher led a roomful of Iraqis step by step in how to write a persuasive essay.

Ruaa and her younger sister Rand help their mother, Qanal, prepare dinner at their El Cajon home. Her parents have been unsuccessful in finding work since coming to the United States.

Ruaa’s parents view their daughters’ schooling as a positive aspect of their resettlement. They showed a reporter the certificates Ruaa received for being on the honor roll, and said such symbols of recognition don’t exist in Iraq.

Other parts of the resettlement process haven’t gone as well. Raafat is fluent in English and managed mess halls for American soldiers and contractors in Iraq, but he hasn’t found a job here. Like most Iraqi families in El Cajon, the family lives on public assistance while he looks for work.

“All the answers were, ‘Slow, slow, slow. We will call you back,’ “ Raafat said. “But they don’t call you back.”

The districts are trying to help parents get retooled for the job market by offering English classes. Attending the classes for 35 hours a week is also a requirement for most refugees to get welfare payments.

The school systems have hired some Iraqis who are well educated to help other Iraqi parents navigate the schools. Nashwa, who has a master’s degree in English from Iraq’s University of Mosul, works part time in a family-resource center at El Cajon Valley High School as a parent liaison.

Her husband was killed in 2004 in Iraq, and the widow now juggles work, additional schooling, and rearing two sons. She said life is hard here, particularly for Iraqis who haven’t found jobs, and some have even returned home.

Ruaa stands outside the apartment she shares with her parents and sister.

“Most of the parents think of welfare as jail,” she said.

One Iraqi couple who have two children in an El Cajon elementary school say they get a $941 welfare check each month plus food stamps, while the rent on their apartment is $925.

The entry-level jobs that refugees usually land in this country are scarce in the current sluggish economy, says a report put out by the U.S. Government Accountability Office this month. The report says Iraqi refugees tend to have high levels of education, but have struggled to find work.

Hope for Future

The challenge of adjusting to the United States seems particularly daunting for parents with no schooling. Nadia, the mother of three students in an El Cajon elementary school, is in that group.

Her husband was murdered in Iraq. She is illiterate, doesn’t speak English, and is on welfare.

She has one practical complaint about her children’s schooling in El Cajon. She has no car, and it’s a 45-minute walk to what is considered to be the neighborhood school. Students are bused only when the district has deemed that a neighborhood school is full and that they must go elsewhere.

Nadia has doubts about her ability to get a job and prosper in her adopted country, but has faith her children will have more success.

Speaking through an interpreter, she said in Arabic, “My children will have a good future because they can get a good education and good jobs.”

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Education Week published only the first names of Iraqis because some feared retaliation against relatives living in Iraq.
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as U.S. Schools Searching for Ways to Help Iraqi Refugees Catch Up

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