Across borders, seeking amity


art by Stephanie Kang

Nikol Slatinska

Everyone knows being the new kid can be a nerve-racking experience. It’s the first day of school and students are crowding the hallways, cheering ecstatically upon seeing their best friend.
Then there’s the newbie, trying to get to class in an unfamiliar building full of unknown faces. The situation is about as distressing as it can get, right?
Now imagine the new student just arrived from another country and doesn’t know a word of English.
This is the case for nearly 70 RBHS students who speak little to no English. English Language Learners teacher Lilia Ben-Ayed said her students would like to feel included as part of the school.
“My students are interesting, intelligent and friendly,” Ben-Ayed said. “They want to be noticed and talked to by U.S. students. When someone from the U.S. puts forth the effort to get to know my students, they are very happy.”
Last year, RBHS served 44 ELL students. That number has increased to 69 for the 2015-16 school year. Among them, they speak a total of 12 native languages, ranging from Spanish to Swahili.
Junior Bwet Phaw was born in Burma and grew up in Thailand. She moved to the United States in 2009 because of conflict in her home country.
She speaks four languages, including Burmese and Karenni, both predominantly spoken in Burma. Compared to Thailand, Phaw said, the people of Columbia are much more diverse.
“I’ve made new friends from different countries. I’m really glad I’m surrounded by them because it’s nice to learn about their cultures,” Phaw said. “I never knew there were people like them before.”
Junior Moiz Muhammad is not in ELL but can relate to Phaw’s situation. Born in Pakistan, Muhammad moved to the United States at age four.
Students didn’t treat him any differently, but he still noticed differences between his culture and theirs, sparking curiosity among his peers.
“When I was young, I didn’t know how to handle the differences,” Muhammad said. “At times I would feel left out because I wasn’t aware of certain traditions my family didn’t partake in.”
Since then, he’s learned to embrace both cultures as he’s matured. For Muhammad, making friends despite personal differences hasn’t been difficult. Fortunately, that seems to be the case for Phaw as well.
Yet Phaw still doesn’t approach people unless they talk to her first because she doesn’t want them to feel surprised if her English is not as developed as theirs. However, she loves to joke around once she gets comfortable around others and hopes other students don’t perceive her insecurity as insolence.
Aside from new friends the ELL students make, Ben-Ayed is their closest contact. A change she sees in most of her students as they begin speaking more proficient English is growth in confidence, which helps them do better academically and build new friendships.
“I know how they all feel being a part of a new culture,” Ben-Ayed said. “I love to support them during their first months, and sometimes years, as they are learning to navigate in a foreign world.”
By Nikol Slatinska
art by Stephanie Kang