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Teen who fled Syria helps immigrants adjust to Michigan life

June 17, 2018

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Four middle school students sat around a table in a classroom one warm afternoon in May, making their way through a reading worksheet.

High school senior Lanah Almatroud helped the younger students who were dressed in khakis and navy polo shirts at Multicultural Academy haltingly sound out the English words.

They spoke more quickly in Arabic as Almatroud reviewed the concepts lost to them in the translation. Almatroud, 17, a Syrian native whose family moved to Ann Arbor in 2013, knows what it’s like to try to learn in a second language.

She didn’t speak English when she began seventh grade at Ann Arbor’s Scarlett Middle School. Five years later, she’s about to graduate from Skyline High School with a 3.9 GPA.

“They just need to have high self-confidence and they can do it,” Almatroud said. “Even if they struggle with English now, that’s how I used to be, but now I’m good at English. They’ll be able to get good grades. I just keep encouraging them that it’s going to be fine.”

Scarlett Middle School Principal Gerald Vasquez and ESL teacher Candida Justyna were instrumental in helping Almatroud learn English and feel comfortable at school, she said.

The Ann Arbor News reports that when Almatroud moved on to Skyline, former English teacher Christopher Peterson — who drowned in a kayaking accident in 2016 — helped her take notes in social studies and science classes and then work with her after school to explain the content in simpler English terms.

Peterson encouraged Almatroud to leave ESL classes and enroll in a regular English class in 10th grade, and she said she ended up getting an A in that class.

She’s also taking AP calculus and is involved in numerous extracurricular activities. She’s considering a career in health care and said she has been accepted to University of Michigan-Dearborn, Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University and Detroit Mercy.

Almatroud said she was a good student in Syria, too. Knowing what her parents gave up to give her and her sisters a new life in America has reinforced her motivation to do well.

“I just want to give them back some of what they’ve done for us,” Almatroud said. “By me getting good grades and going to college and maybe medical school, I’m giving some back.”

Her family - which includes her father, mother and two younger sisters - escaped the war beginning to affect their hometown of Damascus, the country’s capital. There were power outages and they could hear bombs going off in the distance when they decided it was time to leave.

They left friends, relatives, high-paying jobs and a once-comfortable life behind to seek safety and a better future in the U.S.

“They knew that it was definitely going to get worse, and it did get worse,” Almatroud said.

Almatroud’s family relied on her uncle and his family for support when they started rebuilding their life in Ann Arbor. They lived with her uncle for about a year, and he helped her parents find work.

Her father Maher Almatroud, who had a government job in Syria, now manages a Subway restaurant. Her mother Mayada Chamdin, who was a pharmacist, is now a paraprofessional at Multicultural Academy - the Pittsfield Township charter school where Almatroud frequently volunteers as a tutor and helps translate during parent-teacher conferences.

“I left everything,” Chamdin said. “In my country, if you go step-by-step, I’m almost at the top. When I came here, I’m on the floor.”

Seeing her daughters get good grades and work hard in school makes that sacrifice worth it for Chamdin. Similarly, she encourages the students she works with at Multicultural Academy to work hard and become successful in America.

Multicultural Academy has become a haven for refugees and other immigrant students from across southeast Michigan.

Three-quarters of Multicultural Academy’s 180 K-8 students are learning English as a second language, according to data from the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.

At the start of the 2016-17 school year, the school enrolled 80 new Syrian immigrant students — some coming from as far as Dearborn and Detroit, said Terry Farha, director of Universal Management, the company that provides staffing and other services for the charter school.

To accommodate the diverse student body, the school employs bilingual staff who work with classroom teachers to make sure students understand the content, said Mohana Mukherjee, chair of Multicultural Academy’s English as a Second Language department. Students practice their English skills during small group instruction.

“It’s very challenging, which actually makes it very rewarding,” Mukherjee said. “In a year, we see so many of them transform into fluent English and get on par, or above, their peers in their state (test) scores.”

Still, the majority of Multicultural Academy students did not test as proficient on the state’s 2017 standardized M-STEP assessment.

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, a nonprofit organization that resettles refugees, also recognizes the difficulties children can have acclimating to a new school and new culture. The agency has promoted anti-bullying and cultural awareness campaigns, and last summer they piloted a summer youth program.

The youth program will continue this summer, teaching about 20 teenagers about leadership. There are still opportunities for volunteers and sponsors to get involved, said Shrina Eadeh, director of resettlement services for JFS.

“They want to make friends with what they call American kids, and they also want to give back,” she said. “A lot of the youth said they felt like they have been given a lot, and one of the things they wanted to do was give back.”

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Information from: The Ann Arbor News, http://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor

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