By Kaitlin Candelaria
And Emily Williams
Mohamad Karassi is a typical teenager. A junior at Hoover High School, he enjoys his newly acquired driver’s license and working at his part-time job. But until recently, his life was anything but typical for a suburban teen.
Karassi immigrated from Syria in 2013. His parents and sisters moved to the United States first, leaving Karassi and his brother in Syria with their grandfather because the boys had trouble getting visas.
“Things were starting to get really bad in Syria,” Karassi said. “One day while walking in the park, the Shabihas starting chasing my brother and shooting at him.” Feeling lucky to have escaped the brutal militia attack with his life, Karassi’s brother and Karassi fled to Egypt to live with their aunt. They were granted visas and joined their parents in the U.S. about six months later.
Karassi is just one of the growing international student population in Over the Mountain schools. Although integrating these students from different cultures into school life can be a challenge, area school officials agree that diversity among the student population can also be a positive influence in the classroom.
“Teachers really encourage our students to share about their lives – their culture, how and why they came to Alabama and more – because they see it as a learning opportunity for everyone,” Melissa Parker, ESL teacher at Hoover High School, said. “We talk a lot about wanting to develop globally minded students. What could be a greater way of achieving that than recognizing ‘the world’ that you have right here in our classrooms?”
One of the biggest challenges school officials must meet is teaching students who are not fluent in English. Multi-lingual households have become commonplace in the Over the Mountain area, with officials at Homewood City Schools estimating that their students speak almost 30 languages in their homes and Hoover estimating their students speak more than 50.
Dr. Barbara Mayer, director of Instructional Support Services for Hoover City Schools, said any student who registers at a school in Alabama must complete a survey to determine what language the student speaks at home.
“If any question reflects a language other than English, the student must be evaluated for English proficiency to determine if he or she needs support,” Mayer said. “If the student needs support, a team composed of the parent, teacher, an English Learner teacher and the principal will meet to determine what supports are needed.”
Some examples of supports the school provide include the use of visuals and hands-on activities, one-on-one instruction time with an English Learner teacher and collaboration with the student’s classroom teacher. Each year, the students are tested to determine their mastery of the language.
These types of programs were essential as Karassi struggled to learn English to fit into his new home.
Karassi said his father chose to settle the family in Hoover because his brother lived in the area.
“He was able to help my dad do things like get a place to live,” Karassi said. Now, his father, who worked as a dentist in Syria, is working on obtaining the certifications he needs to open a practice.
Despite coming from an educated home, Karassi was forced to repeat the eighth grade when he couldn’t produce documents proving his level of schooling in Syria. He also had difficulty with the language.
“It’s so frustrating when someone’s talking to you and you can’t speak back,” he said. “It’s hard making new friends.”
But that changed as he became fluent in English, and Karassi began to enjoy his new life in Hoover.
“My favorite thing about Hoover is the schools,” he said. “In Syria, if you raise your hand and say you need help, the teacher would get angry with you. Here, people really care about school.”
Searching for More
Karassi and his family aren’t the only ones who appreciate the opportunities for education that the Over the Mountain community has to offer.
Paul Rukwaro relocated his family to Homewood in 2003 from Kenya after being granted a diversity visa through the U.S. Department of State.
“I met a pastor from Homewood who had come to Nairobi for a mission trip who agreed to host us,” Rukwaro said. “We were looking for a better life for us and our children.”
Paul and his wife, Jane, are parents to five children – all of whom call or have called Homewood City Schools home. Their second oldest, Alex, graduated in May and is getting ready to attend Auburn, where he plans to major in mechanical engineering, while their middle child, Faith, is a rising sophomore at Homewood High School.
“People don’t realize that America truly is the land of opportunity,” Paul said. In Kenya, he said, people are locked into whatever career path they pursue in school and there is no opportunity for change, regardless of whether they enjoy their jobs. Once a government worker, he said he realized his passion was nursing and immediately set to work becoming a registered nurse once he immigrated to the United States.
English didn’t present as big of a barrier for the Rukwaro family, since it is taught in Kenyan schools. However, the Southern accents took a bit of adjustment. Some of the food confused them, as well.
“I remember my first day at Shades Cahaba,” Alex said. “We had corn dogs and I had no idea what it was.”
Although the family speaks fluent English, at home they still often speak the “mother tongue” of their village in Kenya. They also stay connected to the Kenyan community through the local Kenyan culture and religion. Paul said there are good and bad things about both the American and Kenyan cultures.
“When we go back to visit and I tell someone in a restaurant, ‘Thank you,’ they look at me very strange,” Paul said. “I tell my kids to take the good and bad from both cultures. That’s the great thing – they have freedom of choice.”
Visits back to their home country also frequently remind the children of how lucky they are to attend school in Homewood.
“The kids in Kenya are walking to school at three and four years old,” Alex said. “They don’t have shoes and sometimes they’re walking five to six miles every morning. We take a lot for granted here.”
Despite having to adjust to the many cultural differences, the family said they fell in love with the area early on.
“It wasn’t easy to start with,” Jane said. “When you move here, you don’t know the language or how to maneuver the city. But after a few months, you make friends. The people here in Homewood are very nice.”
Diversity is one of the many reasons the Maha family chose to make their home in the Over the Mountain community.
Julian and Michele Maha are both doctors in the Birmingham area. The couple, both from Malaysia, speak fluent English along with their children, Juda and Abram, who attend Vestavia Hills Elementary West.
Though the children did not encounter a language barrier, the Mahas have experienced linguistic challenges of their own with Abram, who has a non-verbal form of autism.
Michele said the school’s dedication to diversity is apparent in more ways than just with international students. Abram’s school works closely with Michele and her husband to make sure Abram’s needs are being met while also challenging him academically.
“The one thing I’ve always appreciated about the school is the fact that I can
really talk to Principal (Kim) Hauser, to the vice principal and to his teacher Kem Bennett,” Michele said. “I am able to really try to integrate what he learns in school to what he learns at home.”
Michele said that she experiences the same kind of camaraderie with the community as a whole. In her neighborhood, she said she personally knows most of her neighbors, and they go out of their way to help her or her children. For example, because of his autism, Abram tends to wander. Michele said that, because they have a close relationship with the neighborhood, residents recognize him and know how to react when they see him wandering. She and her husband also are founders of the nonprofit KultureCity and have seen a lot of support for the organization within the Vestavia area.
“It’s great to be in a culture where people truly care about each other and the care goes beyond the community,” she said.
Because of the neighborly culture she sees, Michele said she has fallen in love with the South and the Vestavia Hills community. Though her children are growing up in a multi-lingual family, she said she appreciates the extended diversity her children encounter in Vestavia. In fact, teachers at VHEW said they encourage students to be bilingual.
“Our classroom teachers do a tremendous job of cultivating a welcoming environment,” Principal Kim Hauser said. “Our ELL teacher works closely with students to promote English acquisition while also encouraging the family to continue using their language of origin.”
The schools also employ programs similar to that of Hoover City Schools to help multilingual families. Translators are on hand to help parents with things such as enrollment and registration.
“As someone who came from a different country with a different background and culture, it’s really great to be able to say that we are part of a community where there are Caucasians, African Americans, Indians, Chinese and Hispanic people,” Michele said. “And it goes beyond racial diversity, but in terms of professions and mentality.”
Michele said that she appreciates the different cultural festivals and diverse celebrations that her children encounter in their school environment.
“I love the fact that, for instance, with Abram and Juda, they will grow up seeing these different cultures,” she said. “They experience different cultural festivals and celebrate different holidays. That is what will help them be more open.”