Life in Translation 

Afghani children struggle to learn the language of a new land.

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The library is where it’s at. They come in bright colors. Especially 8-year-old Maryam, who wears pink pants with embroidered flowers, pink sandals, striped dress and a purple backpack with Disney characters. The older kids arrive on bikes, with younger kids running alongside. Decked out in such colorful clothing, the group turns heads when it reaches the downtown Salt Lake City Library. The kids stop to rummage through their bags for videos they need to return. An old woman approaches them. “Do you speak Spanish?” she asks.


Not quite. They speak Farsi, plus all the English they’ve learned while living in the United States.


The task is daunting, to say the least. Picture yourself learning their native language. Imagine learning to write from right to left, instead of left to right. Imagine learning a new alphabet that doesn’t have letters for vowels. Imagine having to pronounce the “gh” consonant of the Farsi language. Imagine learning this in a new country, soon after the death of your father in a war-torn land, after your family made its passage out by weaving a rug. Now imagine learning all this in the space of one year.


That’s the challenge facing 12-year-old Zamzama Ghulam-Sarwar, 10-year-old Maryam Ghulam-Sarwar, 11-year-old Sharif, and 12-year-old Waheeda Hussaini. All four arrived in Salt Lake City in November 2001. Before that, they made their way to Pakistan, where they lived in a U.N. refugee camp. The two families—the Ghulam-Sarwars and Hussainis—met on the plane on their way to the United States. Now they live in the same apartment complex, and their children attend the same school.


Learning a new language in a new land is a challenge for any refugee child in the Salt Lake Valley. But it’s also a challenge for local school districts. Most districts are adept at handling any influx of Spanish-speaking students. Learning materials for these students are easy to find, as are qualified instructors and volunteer tutors and translators. But in the process of accommodating the larger minority, children of other enthnicities—Bosnian, Sudanese, and now Afghani—are often the first to be left behind. As conflicts heat up around the world, it’s more than likely that local school districts will be absorbing an ever more diverse array of refugees, and with them, their more esoteric languages. According to the 2000 census, Utah posted the fifth-highest percentage increase in immigration.


The refugees’ challenge to learn English is part of the overall challenge of learning in general, adapting to the American school system, and advancing through the grades on schedule with their American peers. Local school districts are weary of holding back children such as Maryam, Sharif, Zamzama and Waheeda—even despite the language barrier. Rising to the task is up to them.


Luckily, all four enrolled at Lowell Elementary, where a woman volunteers two hours per week to help them, and where several other women familiar with the Farsi and Pashtoo languages are available for needed translations.


“A lot of schools might not have that big of a support system,” says Amanda Thorderson, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Lowell.



Life During Wartime


Brother and sister, Sharif and Waheeda were born in Taimani, a district of the Afghan capital, Kabul. It’s the district “that had electricity,” Waheeda says.


But the lights sometimes went out. The family hid in the basement during bombings. Waheeda remembers Taimani as a place of many trees, many houses, and the well where her family drew its water. Sharif climbed a “sinjid” tree in a house neighborhood, but he remembers a field of grazing cows at the end of their neighborhood alleyways.


Back then, Sharif wore traditional Afghani clothes: a long coat, fabric pants and a shirt. “Pretty much like [what I wear] here,” he says.


He never donned the turban, however. All that Waheeda wears from her Afghani wardrobe of the past are her glass earrings. The rest she keeps in her closet at home.


“Our dad died, and we left,” Waheeda says. Their father died in Mazar-I-Sharif five years ago. It was a bomb that killed him as he walked home, the children were told. Sharif and Waheeda’s mother, Tahira Hussaini, says her husband was killed by the Taliban regime because he was a Shi’ite Muslim.


Neither Sharif nor Waheeda remember how old they were when they moved to Aitanwan, Pakistan. But they certainly remember how they moved. They rode by car for what seemed a day and a night. The two children and their mother paid for carfare with a rug made by Sharif and Waheeda.


“My mom has big hands, so I made it,” Waheeda says, mimicking a weaving motion to show how small hands fit between fabric strings that big hands cannot.


Maryam and Zamzama don’t remember anything of Afghanistan, but they recall riots in their U.N. refugee camp in Islamabad, Pakistan. Iraqis in the camp rioted and broke windows because they were placed down the list of the U.N.’s priorities for transport out of Pakistan.


Deljan Ghulam-Sarwar, Zamzama and Maryam’s mother, remembers the altercations. “The U.N. office would tell them, ‘You are men; these ladies don’t have anybody. Their problems are more than yours.’ The U.N. office helped us a lot. They saved us from all those troubles,” she says.


In Zamzama and Maryam’s Salt Lake City apartment, videos in Hindu and English as well as Farsi CDs surround the family TV. Zamzama would like it if the family house were a little more quiet. “We don’t have a minute of peace because of my brothers,” she says.


It’s in Sharif and Waheeda’s Salt Lake City apartment that women sometimes gather for tea. Finding work is difficult since they know even less English than their children. Still, the women attend language school every day. They would do anything, they say, for their children to one day attend university.


“It doesn’t matter what they want to do, we just want them to do something,” says Tahira Hussaini.


That “something” may one day lead to the field of medicine. When the kids get together to talk of future plans, they all talk of being doctors.


“Oh my gosh, all these doctors,” Waheeda giggles.


“Four doctors in Salt Lake City!” Zamzama says.


They all laugh about wanting the same profession.


“You have to study, then be a doctor. You have to go to college,” the older Waheeda reminds them all.


So they prepare, even over the weekend. Most Sundays they attend an informal English class, which starts at 1 p.m. at the downtown library. Waheeda runs to the couch, and then sits down, writing her spelling words from memory in preparation for her lesson. She wants to get the best grade this time. Maryam runs to the computer to search for information about the Hindu singer “Mamna.” Her sister, Zamzama, reminds her not to put her feet on the chair. While his sister, Zamzama and Maryam attend class, Sharif plays on the computer, then reads English books with two Afghani boys from his neighborhood.


Formal schooling was unknown to them before they came to the United States. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime wouldn’t allow schooling for women, and in the U.N. camps there simply wasn’t enough money or resources for lessons. What education they managed to get was spotty and irregular. Maryam and Zamzama got a year’s worth of schooling in Pakistan. Sharif got as far as third grade in Afghanistan, and Waheeda studied one year with a private instructor. Still, by the time they got to Salt Lake City, none of them knew how to read or write their own Farsi language.


So, in order that they might catch up with American children, Lowell’s ESL program crams four years of schooling into one. The goal is learning the basics—reading, writing, math—before they advance to intermediate, or junior high, ability levels. The process is a rush, since the school district places children in their grade level according to age. That’s the opposite of how the children’s ESL instruction operates. In ESL classes they attend, they’re grouped according to ability level, not age. And although traditional ESL instruction aims to teach students their new language without referring back to the student’s old language, many teachers still translate back to the student’s native tongue.


Getting With the Schedule


Sunday classes at the library combine lots of learning with a little fidgeting. Although Maryam is completely absorbed, leaning to the middle of the table to hear the teacher’s lesson, she still has trouble keeping her feet off the classroom chair. Zamzama reminds her to keep still. But it’s Zamzama who often checks to make sure her hair is in place by using a library window as a mirror.


Outside the classroom, Sharif walks while looking at the ground. To strangers he can look hostile, but turns shy once he starts talking.


Because she knows more than the other kids, Waheeda volunteers in class as much as the teacher and other kids let her. Like Zamzama, she also checks the library window to see if her hair is in place.


Leading the class is Shole, as she’s simply known, a Farsi-speaking woman who volunteers for the Sunday classes. She helps them with math, reading, sentences and memorization. Shole tells them to hold their heads at a distance from their notebooks. She instructs them in the ways of a daily planner.


“They were not used to doing things on a regular basis,” Shole says.


Changing old habits and establishing routine is one of the first hurdles to teaching refugee children. Indeed, school as it’s run in the United States is a completely alien idea to them. To a refugee used to transitory life where chance and fate can disrupt everything, stability and schedules can be unusual.


In Afghanistan Waheeda stayed at home, babysitting her younger sister while her mother and brother worked. Sharif sold water. Waheeda baked bread and cleaned the house. Outside she could play hopscotch with friends. In the U.N. refugee camps, life was basically one long wait.


Now they live in America, the land of daycare, vacuum cleaners and video games. They have folders for homework, ESL teacher Amanda Thorderson’s class, and Shole’s Sunday class.


But once you have a schedule and assignments, you’ve got to write it all down. In the beginning, Sharif, Waheeda, Zamzama and Maryam couldn’t do even that. Even when Shole wrote down the assignment, no one in their home could read it.


“I thought English was hard in the beginning, but just because I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do,” Waheeda remembers.


At Lowell, Zamzama and Maryam have an hour every school day to learn English with Thorderson. Waheeda and Sharif have their own hour with Thorderson. They have separate classes, Thorderson says, because together they become overly competitive.


It might already be competitive enough. In their class together, Maryam tries to answer every question, even when it’s not her turn. She barely sits on the chair. Given her turn, Zamzama, who is two years older, calmly concentrates, then answers.


In the next class, it’s Waheeda who tries to answer all Thorderson’s questions before Sharif can. It’s only when Waheeda gets too pushy that Sharif starts claiming his turn to answer questions.


As a group, they’re learning the vocabulary of most American first-graders, words such as “that,” “is,” “glad,” “sad” and “lad.” But Sharif, Zamzama and Waheeda want to be in junior high next fall. Waheeda and Zamzama were supposed to be in junior high this year, until their mothers asked the district to let them stay another year in elementary school. The district allowed them to stay, but only because it was an extreme circumstance. If advanced, Waheeda and Zamzama would have had only the equivalent of one year of elementary school before entering junior high.


“We don’t retain students because of their lack of language skills; otherwise we would have 40 percent of students retained,” says Sandra Buendia, alternative language services coordinator at the Salt Lake City School District.


She says holding a child back would have serious implications for their self-esteem. “Research shows that, unless a student receives drastically different instruction, a year’s retentive process would not increase their learning.”


Retaining Waheeda and Zamzama was the right decision, Thorderson believes. They started reading only at the end of last year. Holding them back another year would not be a good idea, though, due to their age.


“By the end of this year they will obviously be so much bigger than the other kids. Two years age difference is a lot,” Thorderson says.


And by that time the kids are eager to move on, whether or not they know as much language as their peers.


Waheeda is excited at the prospect of helping another person who doesn’t know English. By the end of this year, Thorderson thinks all four of them will reach second-grade and possibly third-grade levels.


“With these kids, the only reason they are behind is that they haven’t had a chance,” Thorderson says.


Growing Up Fast


Complicating matters is the fact that not all of their needs are academic. Thorderson recalls a Pakistani boy who panicked during a fire drill. He thought it was a bomb siren.


“Their fathers died in the war, so you need to be very careful when you say things like, ‘Take this to your mother and father,’” she says.


“Gone” is how Waheeda describes everything dead. Even her cat “Ajai.”


“I miss my cat, he’s gone,” she says. Her friend’s dog ate it, she says.


Waheeda remembers that her father would watch her play hopscotch with her friends. He played “panjagh”—an Afghani game similar to jacks—with them. Now he’s “gone.”


“I don’t know [when my dad died]. My mom knows,” Waheeda says. “I would be so happy if he was here, because he wouldn’t be gone.”


But her grandfather is here, she adds quickly.


Sharif was very small when his dad died. He doesn’t remember much. “I was two and a half or three and a half years old,” he says.


Zamzama remains silent when there’s talk about her father, who died five years ago. As a member of the Taliban army, he died fighting the Northern Alliance. Maryam changes the subject to her grandfather, who’s still in Pakistan.


Emotional needs cannot be separated from educational needs. Whether these emotional needs are fulfilled can provide incentives or barriers to progress. Unlike kids who get immediate help from parents when they get stuck on a problem, these kids must wait until the next day, when they can ask Thorderson or Shole. Also, when parents don’t speak English, it’s the children who handle trips to the store, school paperwork, and matters with the landlord. On top of all that, they still do all the usual chores expected of most children, like babysitting their younger siblings.


“They have to grow up a lot faster,” Thorderson says. “These kids have to be the parents.”


Right to Left, Left to Right


Maryam, Waheeda, Zamzam and Sharif know the Farsi alphabet and a few Farsi words. They wrote from right to left in Farsi, then learned to write from left to right in English. That didn’t confuse them much, they say. Waheeda recalls writing a capital “A” without taking her hand off the paper, then wondering why it didn’t appear on the paper as expected. She thought, instead, that your pencil should remain on the paper as you write the letter. That’s because in Farsi, which has 32 letters, the pencil rarely leaves the page between words. In Farsi, letters are strung together to make words.


Still, when they talk, the kids make grammar mistakes. Shole reminds them to put spaces between their words when writing their words down. The “th” and “d” sounds become confusing, and sometimes even interchangeable for them. The Farsi language doesn’t make allowances for a “th” sound. In Farsi, the stress is most often placed on consonants, as opposed to English, in which the vowels are stressed. Vowels are mutable, not so fixed as they are in the English language. Vowels also cause problems, since in Farsi about half of the vowels aren’t written down. The “a” and “e” vowels in English create even more confusion, since vowel sounds are often interchangeable in one word. In Farsi, a word can be pronounced in different ways. The consonants are concrete, but the vowels can change according to the dialects of different regions. A Farsi speaker might have difficulty learning the difference between the English words “bag” and “beg.” The schwa vowel causes even more frustration for the Farsi speaker.


But even with all this left to learn, Waheeda, Sharif and Zamzama will go to junior high next year. Thorderson tries to teach them all she can, but knows they won’t get the sort of personalized attention they’re used to once in junior high. “What non-English speaking students do get at the intermediate level, however, is a lot of support,” says Buendia.


“We have a multi-leveled, multi-faceted support center. We have newcomer centers where students have a very supportive environment. They stay with a teacher for a two to three-hour period,” Buendia says.


At Bryant Intermediate, where most children from Lowell feed into after sixth grade, the two newcomer classes have about 17 children per class, and each class takes two periods of school time. Seventeen seems a reasonable enough size, considering that the average class size is 25 to 30 children. But try handling 17 students who don’t know English, are at various levels of learning the language, and have just one teacher to share among themselves. Add to that intercom announcements, a school-organized lottery game interrupting class time, and groups of kids who can easily switch back to their native language, rather than using English, when speaking to one another.


Bryant places the kids in ESL classes based on their competency level. Yet there’s a difference of levels between students. Michelle Simpson, ESL teacher at Bryant, says it would be better to split up the kids even more, as they do in some other schools. But due to the small number of ESL students and lack of funds, that can’t be done.


Simpson has an aide for her ESL classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Occasionally, a counseling intern or community volunteer helps her out in class. Mostly, though, she teaches alone.


“I wish I had an aide every day. Generally, I am the only person in the classroom and these kids need so much one-on-one attention.”


The kids could have an easier transition into school, both academically and socially, if the district taught them separately from their school mates for a period of six months, Shole believes. That way they would learn English and communication skills, and grasp other learning tools, before being thrown into the mix with American kids.


“[The district] just evaluates them according to age, and puts them in a grade. Then everything becomes the parents’ responsibility, and for a lot of these kids their parents can’t help them, either,” Shole says.


How do they learn? Repetition is the key. That’s how Waheeda studies for a spelling test. For a specific day, she has nine words and seven verb tenses. She writes each tense with each word, making 63 sentences total. She writes all this on 13 pieces of scratch paper.


Maryam, Zamzama and their younger brother Tofiq are fond of repeating whatever they hear from the television set.


“When the TV says something, we repeat it, and then we learn,” Tofiq says.


“And whatever they do, he copies,” Maryam says.


Tofiq demonstrates a line he learned from the Power Rangers show. “If you don’t give me this, I’ll kill you!” he says, repeating a line of dialogue.


Filling in the Gaps


The children’s progress was slow at the beginning. Shole remembers starting from place value when teaching them math.


“They didn’t know whether 2 was greater than 6, or not. They had no concept of numbers or letters,” she says.


Now Maryam is in fourth grade, and studies fourth-grade, advanced-level math. Shole taught her using Farsi, so her lack of English skills didn’t keep her from advancing where math was concerned.


Thorderson knows just how lucky the kids are to have a teacher like Shole, who could teach them other subjects in their own language. “It is so hard to teach someone a concept like borrowing and carrying [in multi-digit addition] when you don’t speak each other’s language,” Thorderson says.


Thorderson also knows how lucky the kids are that they just happened to land in a school like Lowell, where there just happened to be volunteers who spoke Farsi.


Others schools don’t have that kind of support system. For Spanish-speaking students, sure. But students learning English without Spanish backgrounds are almost lost in the efforts to accommodate Spanish-speaking students. Farsi-speaking students in other districts must attend after-school programs to get help with their studies, and even then they often have no one who speaks Farsi to help them.


Sol Proden, a language translator at the Salt Lake City School District, says the district provides written and verbal translation services for between 20 and 25 languages, including Farsi.


But providing services often isn’t the same as providing enough services, or services at the right time. Ellie Brady, an ESL teacher at Northwest Junior High, uses the district’s interpreters for parent-teacher conferences, but during the last conferences held, only two out of 16 interpreters came from the district. The rest were volunteers and school staff members. Brady says they never have enough volunteers. More than half of Northwest’s students speak a language other than English as their first language.


Grethe Hurst, an ESL teacher at Riley Elementary, says the problem with using volunteers is their lack of English proficiency. She prefers using the district’s interpreters. But getting early enough notice from teachers when they need an interpreter is a problem.


Calm Amidst Change


At the end of a class taught by Thorderson, Waheeda complains about how much homework Shole assigns. Maybe that’s because she has to put Thorderson’s homework assignments in a folder next to Shole’s assignments.


“I have Shole homework, Amanda homework, and [home-room teacher] homework,” Waheeda says.


“That’s right. You have a lot to catch up on,” Thorderson tells her.


“OK, it’s good,” Waheeda says.


“Sometimes even teachers accept you will not catch up on some subjects, at least for a while. There will be holes in their knowledge of social studies and science,” says Thorderson. But if they learn the basics, they will have tools enough to learn anything they missed.


“There will always be gaps in their knowledge, until they reach an age where they want to fill in their gaps,” Thorderson says.


But she doesn’t think these gaps will hold back Zamzama, Maryam, Sharif or Waheeda. There’s a chance they might not be missing that much, either. “We would be amazed at the number of American students who go through 12 years of school and don’t know anything about the Constitution or biology,” she says


For the children’s mothers, the change so far has been plenty.


“They are much better, much more calm. There [Afghanistan], they had so much fear, from the war, from the Taliban war—everything,” Deljan says.


“You won’t forget your own country, but wherever you are, you go according to their rules,” Tahira says. She wants the children to understand what is right according to American rules and customs, and follow those.


“When Shole told them they can be anything they want to be, but they will have to work harder than American kids, their mouths dropped. They asked, ‘Well, what kinds of things?’ She said, ‘Like a doctor, teacher, lawyer,’ and their mouths just hung open,” Thorderson says. “Coming from a refugee camp, it makes you want to give them even more, to give them every opportunity.”

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