In Elizabeth, New Jersey, there is no shortage of community help that Syrian refugees have received. A local synagogue has hosted a Christmas dinner for them, complete with Chinese food. Help with English is also offered, along with piles of donated clothes.
But for some of the Syrian children, their experience in Elizabeth public schools can be rough. As a result, some families are choosing to send their kids elsewhere.
This winter, two Syrian families took advantage of an offer to transfer their students to a private Islamic school 25 miles away in Teaneck. Iman El Dessouky, principal of the Academy of Greatness and Excellence, says her board members offered scholarships last year as more Syrians arrived in New Jersey. Her school, she says, could ease the culture clash sure to be felt by the newcomers.
Aisha, a 13-year-old whose family asked us not to use her full name, was among the six students from two families accepted in February. She says she had been teased at her public school in Elizabeth for wearing a hijab, or headscarf. Some kids asked her to take it off to prove she wasn't bald, according to Rana Shanawani, a local Syrian American who has organized volunteers to tutor the students and parents.
"One time she actually took it off and showed them that she does have hair," Shanawani says, translating Aisha's story.
We visited Aisha during science class at the private Islamic school, where she copied words in English while her classmates answered questions with enthusiasm. She wore a blue and yellow uniform, which includes a yellow hijab for the girls. She studied alongside fifth graders, several years her junior. Although she still had a lot to learn, Aisha says she felt more comfortable at the Islamic school.
"My mind is relaxed," she says in Arabic. "Everyone is in hijab and they help me and the most important thing is here is that there's, like, religion here. And I practice and I don't forget."
El Dessouky says several of the Syrian kids were held back a few grades because they missed so much schooling as refugees in Egypt and Jordan.
Ibraheem Al Radi is a 13-year-old in sixth grade, two years behind where he should be. He acknowledges he was frustrated at first, but is now optimistic he can improve quickly with help from an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and summer classes. The Islamic school also has a few Arabic-speaking teachers.
But Shanawani says it's been a mixed bag for students who remained in the Elizabeth public schools. Although some of the 11 Syrian children still in public school are doing well — one is planning to graduate in June — she worried about others who were placed in grades based on their age, rather than academic skills.
International Rescue Committee spokeswoman Colleen Ryan says the agency had academic coaches who worked with the schools and families. It also provided counseling and help with after-school homework. "When refugees come to the United States, there’s a ramp," Ryan says. "And there’s a ramp for communities to embrace and sort of integrate refugees from new places. But it’s also our experience that over time things work out."
The agency helped screen incoming refugees to figure out their academic levels, but Ryan says it's up to the schools to place them in the right classes.
In a statement, Elizabeth Schools Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer says the Syrian students were given ESL services daily. And while there were no Arabic translators in the schools, she says the district was working to create Arabic translations of students' progress reports for the families.
Some families were reluctant to share their hardships with teachers and principals in Elizabeth. One father said his 7-year-old son was bullied. Kids stole sandwiches he brought from home, made with halal meat. He says that in Syria, it is not customary for parents to complain to teachers and principals, so he consoled his son and promised to buy him more food.
Shanawani says this is why she assigned a team of volunteers to each family. "Part of what we are trying to do is interfere and advocate for the children in the schools," she says.
With translation assistance by Simon Abi Nader and Thalia Beaty.