Found in Translation

Courtesy of Fair Haven PreK-8 School

With its clock tower, stone columns, and vast front steps, the entrance of Fair Haven PreK-8 School in the New Haven neighborhood of the same name looks classically neo-Gothic. But one glance inside the school, with its mural-lined walls adorned by writing and drawings of every language and culture, revealed that its student body hardly matches its 19th-century façade.

On a Wednesday afternoon, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher Michael Soares retrieved Yasser* from his sixth-grade reading class to help calm down his first-grade sister. The girl had been running around, hiding under tables and refusing to listen to instructions. From afar, the interaction looked like a typical exchange between a teacher and his students. In fact, it was a communication chain: Soares spoke English to another sixth-grader named Tahir*, who translated his words in Arabic for Yasser, who then conveyed the sentiments to his sister.

“Can you tell Yasser to ask his sister why she is mad?”

“He says that she does this sometimes at home.”

“What does his mom do when she gets mad? Does she let her be mad?”

“He says it goes away.”

After a few more questions, Soares put one hand on Yasser’s shoulder and shook his hand. The boy, who spoke no English and looked at the ground as he talked, smiled a little.

Yasser and his sister are Yemeni refugees. They had arrived at school the day before with little prior English language instruction and no exposure to American customs. Their situation is not unique. For over half of the 660 Fair Haven students, English is not their native language. One hundred of these students have been in the U.S. for less than a year, and thirty-eight are resettled refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

“Every day I’m amazed at how resilient the kids are,” Soares said. He has been teaching ESL to kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade classes at Fair Haven for six years. The biggest challenges arise, he told me, when the students’ problems are beyond the school’s resources. With its integrated Newcomer program, Fair Haven School is the default destination for children of refugee and other immigrant families in New Haven. The school has had a long relationship with the non-profit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), Connecticut’s center for immigrant support.

Many of the refugees, especially the younger ones, arrive at Fair Haven having undergone emotional trauma. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, others from separation anxiety. Many of their parents also distrust the public school system. The Newcomer program works to ease the transition from the students’ home countries and remedy parents’ worries, goals always easier said than done.

“You can only do so much over the course of a school day,” ESL teacher Kristin Mendoza said. But she added that the students at Fair Haven are able to make friendships across cultural lines, which she had not seen at the Brooklyn elementary school where she previously taught. Though it also had a diverse student body, ethnic divisions had been clear. There was a table in the cafeteria where all the Haitians sat, and tables where all the Caucasians sat. By contrast, Fair Haven students seem to be unaware of the ways in which their cultural differences could separate them. Instead, they relish the opportunities to share their perspectives.

New English learners and native speakers are not separated in classrooms at Fair Haven. Instead, all newcomers are enrolled in mainstream classes and assigned ESL teachers who provide on-the-spot support. Walking down the hall, Soares picked students out of their classrooms to participate in the day’s speaking exercises. He asked a class of first-graders for volunteers to talk about their experiences adapting to American life, and half a dozen hands shot up. He chose Landry*, a boy from Burundi. Earlier, Soares had shown me Landry’s latest project: a print made with a collection of ink stamps depicting two human silhouettes surrounded by a cluster of trees, with a star floating above the scene.

He had moved his hand across the picture. “Most kids at this age just put a combination of objects, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Landry was the only one who made a whole image.”

Landry was unhappy to be called out into the hallway, where the ESL students often did verbal exercises with Soares. He sulked, leaning against the wall while two children from China played tag around him. Soares asked Landry what was going on, but Landry just shrugged.

“What color are you on?” Soares tapped Landry’s shoulder.

Landry shrugged again. “Green.”

“Ah, I thought you might be on red,” Soares said. “I thought that maybe you were mad because you were on red.” When asked to explain what the school-wide color system meant, Sarah*, a Chinese girl, spoke up.

“Red is bad, yellow is a little good, green is good.”

“What do you have to do to be on green?” Soares asked.

“Be nice. Don’t fight. Try your best.”

The other boy was Ming*. Both Ming and Sarah had been in America for less than a year, and were amused to learn that I also spoke Chinese. Excited to converse with a stranger in their native tongue, they chattered excitedly about the strangeness of America—the big country, and its fast-talking people.

Soares pointed out that Sarah’s parents work at a Chinese restaurant, while Ming’s dad is a researcher at Yale. Landry’s parents had left him at a refugee camp. Yet watching the students interact, there was no indication of a difference in their socioeconomic backgrounds.

During the school’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the students came to school decked out in green. Many come from families who are unfamiliar with the holiday. But Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings said that their time at Fair Haven has made them “background blind.” The school is no stranger to all-inclusive cultural festivities: it had an African Heritage Celebration in early March, and a Hispanic Heritage Celebration last October. Mendoza and her fellow ESL teachers are planning a cultural fair for this spring, when they hope to bring community cultural associations and arts organizations to the school in a showcase of New Haven’s immigrant population.

Mendoza asked a class of sixth graders what the hardest part of their immigrant experience has been. Many of them laughed, because the answer seemed obvious: learning English. A boy from Puerto Rico recalled, “Everyone walks around, talking and talking, and you get dizzy!”

But Katie*, a rambunctious, bright eyed girl from Burundi, gave a different response.

“I’m scared ’cause sometimes people be dying in the streets.” She paused. “There’s shooting and bullying. People judging how you look.” She looked up at Mendoza. “I wish in America there can only be peace.”

* The names of the students have been changed.

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