For Syrian Refugees in New Jersey, a Bumpy Adjustment to School

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Ibraheem Al Radi (right) learning how to say English letters with Rawaa Nejad, an English as a Second Language Teacher at the Academy for Greatness and Excellence in Teaneck

The Syrian refugees who settled in Elizabeth, N.J., over the last year have received a range of support from volunteers, including an invitation to share Chinese food at a local synagogue's Christmas dinner, English lessons and help navigating everyday routines.

But some of the children were having a tough time at the Elizabeth public schools. This winter, two Syrian families took advantage of an offer by a private Islamic school 25 miles away, in Teaneck. 

Iman El Dessouky, principal of the Academy of Greatness and Excellence, said her board members offered scholarships last year as more Syrians arrived in New Jersey. She said her school could ease the culture clash sure to be felt by the newcomers.

"We’re not just preserving your Islamic identity, but you’re also understanding that you are an American citizen," she explained. "You’re obligated to give back to this community. You’re obligated to give back to this country of refuge for everyone." 

Thirteen-year-old Aisha, whose family wouldn't let us use her full name, was among the six students from two families accepted in February. She said 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's been organizing volunteers to tutor the students and parents.

"One time she actually took it off and showed them that she does have hair," Shanawani said, translating Aisha's story.

In March, WNYC visited Aisha during science class at the 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 was learning alongside fifth graders, several years her junior. Although she still had a lot to learn, Aisha said she felt more comfortable at the Islamic school.

"My mind is relaxed," she said 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 said several of the Syrian kids were held back a few grades because they missed so much schooling as refugees in Egypt and Jordan. 

Thirteen-year-old Ibraheem Al Radi is in sixth grade, two years behind where he should be. He acknowledged he was frustrated at first but now was optimistic he could improve quickly, with help from an English as a Second Language teacher and summer classes. The school also has a few Arabic speaking teachers.

But Shanawani said it's been a mixed bag for those who remained in the Elizabeth schools. Although some of the 11 Syrian children still in the schools are doing well and one is even 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 said the agency had academic coaches who worked with the schools and families. It also provided counseling and after-school homework.

"When refugees come to the United States, there’s a ramp," said. "And there’s a ramp for communities to, you know, 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 said it's up to the schools to place them in the right classes.

The Elizabeth Schools Superintendent, Olga Hugelmeyer, did not return calls by WNYC. However, in a statement, she said the Syrian students were given English as a Second Language services daily. And while there were no Arabic translators in the schools, she said 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 told WNYC that his seven-year-old son was bullied at school. Kids stole his sandwiches he brought from home, made with halal meat. He said it's not the custom to complain to teachers and principals in Syria, so he consoled his son and promised to buy him more food.

Shanawani said 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 said.

With translation assistance by Simon Abi Nader and Thalia Beaty.