By Linda Haskell
Shortly before February vacation, six young women from Cony High School entered Messalonskee Middle School smiling and chatting. These could be any group of teenage girls except for the noticeable hijab five of them wore. Each of these strong, vibrant young women have immigrated to the US from either Iraq or Syria. Their purpose was to share their experiences with Team Pemaquid as part of an interdisciplinary unit on Immigration.
Students on Team Pemaquid read the book Refugee by Alan Gratz. It follows the trials of three middle school-age student refugees trying to get to the US: Josef, a Jewish boy in the 1930’s; Isabel in the 1960’s Cuba; and Mahmoud, escaping civil war in Syria in 2015. Students studied and debated topics such as whether to end the DACA program, if a wall should be built between the US and Mexico, if the asylum system needs to be changed, and whether sanctuary cities should be punished by the federal government to name a few topics.
It’s the character of Mahmoud that resonated with one of the high school girls. “I’m also from Syria. I lived in Killis. We escaped and moved to Turkey for 4 years before moving to Florida and finally to Maine,” Zeina explains in nearly flawless English.
Each of the girls told about their experiences. They have been in the United States from 1 to 12 years. Most had at least a 3-year wait to get approval to immigrate. They came for a better education, a better future, and because it was too dangerous to stay in their home country. “We went to Egypt first,” one girl explained, “but it was not safe for us there either.” Most expressed relief to be settled in Maine. They had found that other states like Arizona, New Hampshire, and Florida were full of bullies who said cruel things, were rude, and threatened them. Maine has been friendly, helpful, and understanding, they stated.
The hardest part of the move was learning English. Without being able to speak English, it was hard to fit in. It was almost impossible to make friends. They were quite homesick to begin with. “It was hard when I was bullied,”Albatool said. “ I did not know how to tell them to stop. I just wanted to go home.” “It was so isolating,” another added. “I like to talk a lot,” one girl added. “I didn’t know how to connect with others. It was horrible.”
They all agreed that having someone offering to help went a long way to making them feel welcome. “We are more similar than different,” one said. “If you are genuinely curious, immigrants will talk to you and tell you about themselves. They want to fit in and make friends.”
They then went on to talk about their experiences in their home country. “I lost two cousins in a bombing in a marketplace,” one said. Another told of walking down the street of Bagdad with her mother shopping. They stopped to buy a doll she saw in a shop window. No sooner had they stepped inside the store when a bomb went off down the street. “ I could have been dead if we had kept going,” she said. Another spoke of bombs dropping on her town. “I see old people and young people dying. There was blood everywhere.” Afterward, one of the seventh graders remarked, “ When you read about it in books or watch it on TV, it seems unreal. It was shocking to hear them talk about it happening to them.”
The talk was not all about tragedy. Their favorite American food- pizza! The girls talked about their schools back home. Boys and girls have separate classes starting in middle school. They love being able to play sports. School in Iraq and Syria is all about learning from books. There are no sports. “Even when we had an exercise class, the teacher came in and said to do our homework,” one girl said.
When asked about their hijab, they explained that their hair is the most beautiful part about them and it is kept unseen for their future husband. “However,” they explained smiling, “we do have hair. We don’t shower with it on, and we take it off at home.” They explained that Muslim girls obey their parents. Most will have some sort of arranged marriage since they don’t get to talk to boys much. There is no dating allowed. To date a boy would be a disgrace on their families.
All of them value education. They plan on studying to become nurses, ultrasound technicians, translators, surgeons, and pharmacists. “The education in America is much better,” they explained. Since they are girls, the teachers didn’t explain much back home. It was mostly, read the pages and answer the questions. They all felt their ESL teacher and classes at Cony have been a big help. They have been learning to read and write English and not just speak it. One girl, a junior, will have to stay an extra year to get enough credits to graduate. It’s not easy, but she wants to go on to college.
The hour went by all too quickly. You could hear a pin drop in the library, which is unusual the last few days before vacation in a middle school. These young women left one last message, “ You cannot judge everyone because one or two are bad. You have bad people everywhere. These terrorists are not true Muslims. They are not following what is written in the Koran.” They certainly gave our students much to think about.