In 2009, Gehan Habashy and her husband won the Green Card Lottery. In September 2017, Habashy began teaching visual arts at the International HS for Health Sciences, and students were the winners.
“I speak honestly with my students about my challenges, my struggles in this country. It creates a very strong bond between us,” she says. “I am their learning partner: We empower one another; we inspire one another.”
Born and raised in Egypt, Habashy has felt at home at International HS, where the student body is composed entirely of immigrants, since she first went to the Queens school as a student teacher. “We have a very diverse community,” she says, rattling off more than a dozen nationalities. “I felt like, oh my God, these students are exactly like me: fresh immigrants, trying to figure out their way, trying to follow their dreams.”
New immigrants, she says, “face a huge challenge to develop a sense of social inclusion,” especially in the current political climate, and “the experience is exhausting.”
Habashy arrived in the United States with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and earned a master’s in art education from New York University, choosing that program because of its “social justice lens.”
She sees visual arts as “a powerful tool. It’s not about a skill-based project that ends up on my classroom door,” she says. “It’s not about a beautiful picture. To me, it’s giving voice to my students.”
Habashy shares a painful personal story of the prejudice she has faced as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab in the United States, but she puts the experience in perspective. “I’m trying not to let this affect me,” she says. “I know this is not the whole picture. I’m not going to deny or ignore the pink elephant, but it’s not going to stop me and my belief in my dreams.”
Her students also have dreams. “We need to work together to prove to ourselves and to society that immigrants are capable of being what they dream to be,” she says.
Habashy has gone through many of the struggles her students face and her empathy helps them navigate a difficult time.
As English language learners, they have accents. They relate to Habashy because she has one, too. “As a teenager struggling with language, there are a lot of barriers just to speak up. You’re embarrassed, you’re shy. I tell them, ‘Listen to my accent. You know what? Nobody cares. You just need to open up.’”
It follows that class art projects are often about identity, “about knowing yourself, being proud of your strengths as well as knowing your weaknesses and challenges. It takes courage for students to face the trauma in their lives and start to figure out who they are.”
Her 9th- and 10th-graders are creating self-portraits overlaid with identity poems. One student wrote: “I struggle in English. I can’t do this. But I have a dream.”
Habashy reminds them all, “While you are trying to figure out your own American dream, you are shaping this country’s future. You’re an asset to this country. You are making America great.”