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In a Michigan classroom, immigrants learn about English and acceptance

Aug 28, 2014

One of the students presents a local business brochure made in her class for English Language Learners.
Credit University of Michigan

The federal government is still trying to find temporary shelter for the thousands of children who have fled from Central America, often by themselves. Some of them are met by protesters shouting the children are not welcome in this country.

But in Ann Arbor, a summer school program for English Language Learners is trying to give immigrant kids the opposite message; that they are valuable members of the community with something to teach. 

Unfortunately for the kids, they have to go to summer school to get this message. For many kids, possibly these 10 kids included, summer school is the worst. These students, who range in age from 10 to 14 years-old, are stuck inside a classroom at Scarlett Middle School while the sun shines through the windows.

But this summer program is just one of many things these young people willing to do to succeed in school, and in this country. They’re all here because English is not their first language and they want to improve. They all have different goals. Some want to work on spoken language, others are working on writing English, still others on reading it.

All of these students bring different skills and life experiences into the classroom. Some are recent immigrants or refugees, others have been here a while. They are from places as different as Syria, China and Costa Rica. 

Public schools are required to offer educational opportunities for students who don’t speak English as a first language. This summer class is one offering and the school district, in partnership with the University of Michigan, is trying to inspire these young people. Debi Khasnabis helped design this curriculum. She says she’s trying to make summer school better- through being a place where students can find some value in whatever it was that brought them to this class and what also led to them needing to learn English.

Khasnabis wants them to realize that their experience as immigrants means they bring resilience and skills to the table.

“Unfortunately, often, children of minority backgrounds get positioned as having problems only," she says. "We want to flip that."

Khasnabis's colleagues at the University of Michigan say this "asset based" approach isn't common, but it is imporatnt at a time when immigrant children are portrayed as a problem for this country and a drain on its resources. These students are very aware of that negative attention. I asked one of the students, Jesus, how those news reports made him feel?

"Sad and bad at the same time," he says. All the media attention around the Central American children takes his family back to a time when they worried if they were welcome in America. "So for them it’s like reliving those moments," he continues.

Despite what’s happening in the world around them, in this classroom they keep it pretty positive. They give presentations in front of each other about their cultures and their lives. They also get out of the classroom to meet adult immigrants who live in their community.

One of these people is Golam Kahn, the owner of Golam market, a place that carries everything from produce to meat to baby clothes.  He's a natural storyteller and clearly a hard worker, and makes an impression on the kids. 

Kahn also has a shock of neon orange hair that seems completely incongruous to his identity as a serious business owner.

"Oh my god that is a story!" he said while butchering a fresh halal chicken.

He tells me his wife and "85 percent of people" don't like it. It was a mistake, a misadventure with red henna to be specific, in response to Kahns hair turning what he thought was prematurely white. He's 47 years old.

Kahn says working 7 days a week for at least 10 years has aged him. But he insists he's happy and has, as he puts it "no problems." Maybe this is another reason he made such an impression on the students. He has a very clear message of what they should be willing to do to succeed.  

"Number one, be honest." he says.  "Then work hard, and you’ll get success."

This is Kahn’s version of the American dream. The students at Scarlett Middle School are still figuring out their own version.