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It's Class And It's Not In A Tent

Refugees From War Master Schoolwork And Cultural Changes

July 27, 2006
By ANNIE TASKER, Courant Staff Writer

Fatuma Hussan, 7, cried when she came to West Middle School's summer classes for refugees two years ago: She didn't know how to use the bathroom, and she didn't know how to ask the teachers for help.

Two years later, in the basement of the same school, Fatuma expertly pressed a piece of construction paper into a plastic foam container on which she had painted a blue and yellow pattern. Art teacher Denise Aricolli scurried to Fatuma's desk to write her name on the back of the project before she pulled it out of the container, revealing the painting on the other side. Aricolli began to write: F-a-t-i-m...

"It's `u,'" said Fatuma, grinning. "Fat-u-ma!"

Fatuma is one of about 30 kindergarten through seventh grade Somali-Bantu refugees at the Hartford Public School Summer New Arrivals Program, learning reading, writing and basic math skills. "Classrooms, desks, chairs, bathrooms - it's all new to them," said Etsu Bradshaw-Caines, head of the program. "They came from camps."

The children in the program came from a place where they would be going to school in a tent one day, and running for their lives the next, she said. One of the challenges the children face when they get here is learning that they're at school now - they're not allowed to go tearing down the hallway as they might have back home.

But in many cases, the children are picking up the language and the customs quickly. Some have been part of the program for a couple of years, and they can speak English with ease. Even though the trauma they experienced back home could qualify them for special education programs, Bradshaw-Caines said she wants them to be incorporated into normal school. Their learning experiences, she said, are no different from those that other foreigners have had when they've settled in the United States. "They will make it," she said.

Acclimating to American culture is the least of these children's worries. Fatuma switched her chatter from Somali to English when it was coloring time. "I want a Scooby," she said, and she was given a coloring book picture of Scooby-Doo. Her choice piqued the interest of a classmate sitting next to her. "I want a Scooby, too!" she said.

An explosion of high-pitched voices answered the question of what their favorite TV shows are: "Barney!" "Scooby-Doo!" "Pokemon!" "Dragonball Z!"

Fatuma's outfit also blended Somali and American styles. Her head was wrapped in a white lace shawl knotted in the back. She wore a 9/11 memorial T-shirt with an American flag across her chest, black pants with stripes down the sides, pink flip-flops and a baby-toothed grin as she chattered in Somali with her friends.

Several of the teachers and counselors know the culture shock that the immigrants face. Interns Salmir and Selmir Velic, both 18, are twins who came to Hartford from Bosnia five years ago. Selmir remembers being given a carton of milk at his first school lunch and not knowing how to open it. "It said, `open here.' And I was like, what?"

Salmir, now a student at Manchester Community College, had similar experiences during his first days at school. "At first, when I came here..." he trailed off and threw up his hands. When a teacher told him to do something, he couldn't understand. Instead, he said, he'd sit at his desk and cry. Lunch was traumatic for him as well - when Salmir was presented with pizza, he was confused. "Pizza?" he remembers wondering. "What's pizza?"

They can understand the trauma of fleeing from a war-torn country, as many of the summer school students have. Salmir said he saw his grandmother die in front of him during the war in Bosnia.

"Who would be more sensitive to their needs?" said Bradshaw-Caines of Salmir and Selmir and their involvement with the Somali children. "They don't speak the same language, but they know what these kids have been through firsthand. They are the best thing."

Today, the twins' father drives the bus that brings Somali adults to night class, also run by Bradshaw-Caines. There, the parents of these children who in many cases are illiterate and have never gone to school can learn the same skills as their children.

The school will have an open house today from 10 a.m. to noon to give students a chance to show off what they have learned. Wednesday, teachers, counselors and interns spent the day taping paper fish to bulletin boards and getting the basement of West Middle ready for prime time.

"These kids are sponges," said Bradshaw-Caines. "Trust me."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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