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Yemeni children fleeing war start afresh at US school

What is it like to attend a public school in Dearborn, Michigan, as an eight-year-old who just escaped war-torn Yemen?
Students at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan, during recess (MEE/Dave Leins)

DEARBORN, United States - In many ways, eight-year-old Khaled al-Sameai is just like any other third-grader from suburban Detroit. He loves to play soccer with his friends, his favourite school subject is art and when he grows up, he wants to be a pilot.

But unlike the average elementary-schooler, Khaled came to the US for the first time just eight months ago, fleeing war-torn Yemen with his family. He is just one of dozens of recently arrived immigrant students at Salina Elementary, a public school in Dearborn, Michigan, that serves the city’s sizable Yemeni-American community.

“In our school, about 97 percent [of the students] are of Yemeni descent,” Salina principal Susan Stanley told Middle East Eye.

“We have other schools in the district that have newcomers, but this is really the poorest of the poor, and this is where they really are coming,” she said. “Approximately 40 students were newcomers this year,” all but one of them from Yemen.

Despite not entering the US on a refugee visa, Khaled - like a number of other students at Salina - is for all intents and purposes a refugee. In a combination of Arabic and English, he recounted vivid memories of bombs falling on Sanaa last year.

“Yemen was beautiful, then the Houthis came and destroyed it,” Khaled told MEE. “The Houthis came and killed people. Guns, bombs, all of it.” 

“The first time I saw the Houthis throw a bomb, the light was like the sun. A big explosion,” he said.

Khaled al-Sameai, eight, pictured at Salina (MEE/Dave Leins)

Khaled’s mother, Rabab Sultan, told MEE that during the war, her family lived in a section of Sanaa that was constantly targeted by Saudi-led air strikes.

“The fighters’ camps were right in the middle of the city,” she said. “So the Saudis just bombed areas full of civilians ... The Houthis and Saudis are both terrible.”

Before the war started, Khaled’s family had applied for and was granted a US “Diversity Immigrant Visa” after entering a lottery. Fifty-thousand of these “luck-of-the-draw” visas are granted to applicants around the world each year.

Entering the US on a refugee visa is currently virtually impossible for Yemenis fleeing the civil war. According to the State Department, the US has admitted only six Yemenis to the country on refugee visas since the war started last March. Some of the Yemeni newcomers at Salina were able to come on family visas, while others received political asylum visas.

A State Department spokesperson told MEE via email that the US has accepted a small number of the “most vulnerable” Yemeni refugees at the recommendation of the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

“Typically, resettlement of a given ‎nationality does not occur in any real volume in the initial years of a conflict, as the hope is that refugees will be able to return home safely and voluntarily,” the spokesperson said.

After moving from place to place in desperate but futile attempts to avoid the violence, Sultan and her family decided to leave the country. In July, they flew to Algeria to finalise their documents, because the US embassy in Sanaa had closed in February, about a month before the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign. After two months of waiting in the North African country, Sultan, Khaled and his two brothers finally flew to the US in September. 

At the recommendation of other Yemenis in southeast Michigan, Sultan enrolled her children at Salina elementary.

Salina Elementary is school for kids in preschool through third grade (MEE/Dave Leins)

Smartphone apps and standardised tests

Each year, 30 to 40 immigrant children enrol at Khaled's school, located on the east side of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb known for having the largest percentage of Arab-Americans of any city in the country.

“It’s an elementary school that’s really committed to the care of the children and understanding where they are coming from, and [putting] supports in place [that] really help,” Stanley, the principal, told MEE.

While Khaled has learned an impressive amount of English since starting school in September, he still has a long way to go.

“Sometimes I understand my teacher and sometimes I don’t,” Khaled told MEE. “If I don’t, I try to look around to see what the other kids are doing and follow their lead."

Luckily for Khaled, Salina offers extensive resources for English language learners (ELLs).

“Khaled is in a biliterate classroom ... where he learns in Arabic and English,” Stanley told MEE. “There is an additional resource teacher who [comes] in every day to give him additional reading support.”

Salina principal Susan Stanley practices reading with students (MEE/Dave Leins)

Salina provides ample resources to address the challenges students face as ELLs, but the school does not stop there. Teachers also employ alternative education techniques to tap into "multiple intelligences," so the students are able to learn math and science despite language barriers.

For example, tech coach Cynthia Alvarado’s students are working on a project to build smartphone applications with a software called MAD-learn.

“Language is important, but kids have other things going on in their brain besides language,” Alvarado told MEE.

“So when you give them an opportunity like this that is not so language-dependent, they’re able to show what they know and be successful.”

“Kids that have great mechanical skills may not have great language skills - hello! And kids that have great logical skills for programming may not have great language skills, which is why we have a team. So the people that are good writers write the writing part; the people that are good programmers do the programming part.”

The app-building class is just one manifestation of Salina’s status as a “STEAM” school - meaning the school has a major focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) plus A (art).

It is through STEAM projects like this one that Salina students can circumvent language challenges and continue learning at the rate of any other elementary school kid.   

Salina students in their classroom (MEE/Dave Leins)

Despite Salina’s efforts to specialise their education style based on the unique needs of their students, ELL newcomers like Khaled are largely out of luck when it comes to one thing - statewide standardised tests.

While they are allowed to wait a year before taking the English/language arts portion of Michigan’s “M-STEP” assessment, they have to take the math portion right away. The test is administered entirely in English.

“You have to know English to be able to solve the problems,” Salina parent liaison Sana Hamade told MEE.  

She said the state used to allow newcomer ELL students to wait a year before taking any M-STEP test, but the rules have since changed. “It’s very strange,” Hamade said.

The state measures the effectiveness of the school based on the test scores - and thus teachers encourage their students to come to after-school standardised test preparation sessions on a regular basis. 

Settling down in Dearborn

Given the current political climate in the US, one might assume a school that routinely uses Arabic in the classroom and brings in dozens of Yemeni newcomers each year would face a backlash.

Not in a place like Dearborn, Stanley told MEE. 

“We have a lot of great support” from the Dearborn Public Schools, she said. 

But the city administration was not always so accepting of diversity.

“I mean, I think about it - I grew up in the days of [former mayor] Orville Hubbard," Stanley said. "Oh my gosh. It’s hard to imagine that even in my lifetime it was like that. He pledged that there would be 'no blacks in Dearborn'. It was known for that - it was all white. But they’ve really managed to embrace that diversity.”

Hubbard was mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1988. In addition to his openly segregationist views, Hubbard was quoted as saying, “Some people, the Syrians, are even worse than the n-----s.”

Much has changed since the days of Hubbard, with Dearborn now known as the capital of Arab America. But Sultan, Khaled’s mom, said she still does not always feel entirely welcome among Americans.

“Sometimes I get some looks because of my hijab,” she said. “I don’t always get treated in a respectful way.”

American politicians have singled out Muslims and painted them with a broad brush, she added. 

But overall, Sultan says her experience in the US so far has been positive, especially in Dearborn and at Salina.

She hopes that the US will consider accepting a larger number of refugees from Yemen and other Arab countries.

“Give these people a chance to live in peace here,” Sultan said. “If you see them do anything wrong, it’s your right to judge them. But not before that.”

Boys climb on the playground during recess at Salina Elementary School (MEE/Dave Leins)