Feature stories

Solace in a strange land

Arab teens find nurturing figure in amazing paraprofessional

Paraprofessional Amal Ismaiel at Brooklyn’s MS 2. With Ismaiel (from left) are A Dave Sanders

With invaluable help from paraprofessional Amal Ismaiel at Brooklyn’s MS 2, these teenagers from Yemen, who spoke only Arabic, aced English in just two years and are now fluent. With Ismaiel (from left) are Ali, who wants to be an engineer, and his friends, both named Abdul, who want to be doctors.

“Arab kids find the English alphabet challenging and interesting,” says Ismaiel, Dave Sanders

“Arab kids find the English alphabet challenging and interesting,” says Ismaiel, working with Abdul (left) and Ali, both of whom have mastered it.

Ismaiel works with English-as-a-second-language teacher Annie Benn. Dave Sanders

Ismaiel works with English-as-a-second-language teacher Annie Benn.

Without her, they would be lost, these Arab teenagers who come to the United States often with interrupted formal education, different customs and a glorious alphabet and language that have little in common with English.

“Apart from learning a totally different alphabet they have to learn completely different grammar, all while experiencing culture shock,” said Amal Ismaiel, a paraprofessional at Brooklyn’s MS 2.

Arabic is in the Semitic group of languages, which also includes Hebrew and Amharic. Ismaiel points out that it reads from right to left, has no upper- and lower-case letters and shares virtually no cognates with English.

“It is a strange-looking language to American kids, and Arab kids find the English alphabet challenging to learn,” she said.

After the ABCs she starts teaching them partly in English, very slowly, until they catch on.

“In the beginning some are afraid to open up their mouths and prefer to watch what’s going on around them before they’ll talk,” she said.

MS 2 has been getting an increasing number of Arab students, whose families, mainly from Yemen, moved to this Central Brooklyn neighborhood of Parkside.

“It is incumbent upon us to embrace and educate these children but it had been very difficult because the language and culture barriers were so great,” said

UFT Brooklyn District 17 Representative Rick King. “The school now relies on Ms. Ismaiel.”

A college graduate and native of Egypt’s storied city of Alexandria, Ismaiel had been living in the United States with her husband and children for 12 years and working for a nonprofit organization when she learned of the students’ plight from a friend.

In 2007 she applied for a position as a para and “has been going above and beyond to help this population ever since,” said King.

In the classroom where she works with English language learners coordinator and teacher Annie Benn, Ismaiel is making sure that the group of Yemeni teenagers are on task.

A tall, graceful woman in long clothing and a headscarf called a hijab, Ismaiel seems to glide around the room, hovering like a bird over its young.

They trust her and confide in her, these kids who are far from home and their extended-family networks. Ismaiel is a familiar figure to them in a strange world; it is like learning at the knee of a mother or aunt.

“They want to learn, and even more difficult for them than the language barrier are the cultural differences,” said Ismaiel. “So when they see me here speaking their language and observing the same dress code, they feel more comfortable.”

These teenagers do not date and would consider it disrespectful to even talk to the opposite sex outside of the classroom. They help each other and are like a small family but they also appreciate their schoolmates’ curiosity, often answering questions about their customs, Islam and their dietary habits.

Ismaiel is doing wonderful work despite the fact that the school  has not made annual progress in English language arts as required by No Child Left Behind for the past two years under the current administration, said  King.

As their classmates learn about them, the Arab kids are being eased into their surroundings by Ismaiel. She teaches them that they can focus on and adapt aspects of American life that are in harmony with their own customs.

“I never feel any prejudice for being Muslim at school or here in New York and no student has ever had that complaint,” said Ismaiel, who lives in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where she can easily shop for modest clothing and for kosher food, which is considered halal, permissible, in Islam.

Over the years, Ismaiel has taught kids who will ultimately “stay here and continue their education and others who return to their native countries,” she said. “It depends on their family traditions.”

Ismaiel does not ask if they intend to stay or not. But her hope is “that they get a higher education and I see them someday and their dreams came true, such as meeting someone who wanted to be a doctor in a clinic one day when I am old with a cane.”

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