Not a lot of teens are excited about being the “different” kid that stands out in high school. As a Muslim teen from Iraq, Fatimah is learning to navigate the high school experience in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
For this episode Neighbors is presenting an episode from the show Resettled from VPM: Not a lot of teens are excited about being the “different” kid that stands out in high school. As a Muslim teen from Iraq, Fatimah is learning to navigate that typical experience: striking the balance between fitting in and being your own person. In her senior year at Harrisonburg High, Fatimah decided to try out for the school play, which pushed her boundaries around sexuality and acceptance. Harrisonburg, Virginia is unique as well: there are 51 countries and 57 languages represented in Harrisonburg’s public schools. Not every refugee teen experience is a positive one, but the overwhelming support and pride that the Harrisonburg community takes in its immigrants and refugees means that leaders prioritize their needs in a way that the federal government is not. Resettled is hosted by Ahmed Badr. This story was reported by Maria Parazo Rose. This episode was produced by Gilda Di Carli and edited by Kelly Hardcastle Jones. Learn more at vpm.org/resettled and listen to Resettled wherever you get your podcasts. You can join “The Neighborhood” along with these wonderful, thoughtful, generous people by becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/neighbors Who’s in “The Neighborhood”: Allison Sebastian, Adrian Cobb, Nathalie Stewart, Ben Lehman, Caroline Martin, Clark Buckner, Cody Spriggs, Dan Burns, Em Vo, Eric Detweiler, Gina, Griffin Bonham, Heather Price, John Kesling, Landon Rives, Marc Kochamba, Patrick Black, Patrick Gillis, Ray Ware, Ryan Arnett, Samuel Adams, Tom and Rachel Kraft, Nikki Black, Hunter and Bonnie Moore, Newton Dominey, Bea Troxel, Craig and Brenda Burns, Laurel Dean, Travis Hall, Clark Hill, Tony Gonzalez, and my mom Tonya Lewis (thanks mom!) Visit our website at www.neighborspodcast.com Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts Music from the Blue Dot Sessions, Sandhill and Dan Burns Our sonic logo at the beginning of the episode is by Dallas Taylor’s company Defacto Sound. Dallas makes a podcast about sound called Twenty Thousand Hertz listen at www.20k.org
Neighbors Presents: Resettled
[00:00:00] Jakob: Hey, I'm Jakob Lewis.
Cariad: [00:00:07] And I am Cariad Harmon.
Jakob: [00:00:09] You're listening to Neighbors. A show about what connects us. We're doing something a little different today.
Cariad: [00:00:14] Yes. We've partnered with VPM to bring you an episode from their podcast Resettled.
Jakob: [00:00:19] It's a six-part series exploring the refugee resettlement process in Virginia.
You know, I've always had an ethic of place. Like, I think our relationship to the places we [00:00:30] live really matters and refugees, by the very definition, are displaced, fleeing out of necessity from a place that they had a relationship to. And then, in this case, resettled in a different place in Virginia. I find that word, "resettled", fascinating. And I'm asking myself the question, when are any of us settled?
But I found it really helpful to understand this resettlement process in the context of a specific place, like Harrisonburg, Virginia, which is the context for [00:01:00] this particular episode.
Cariad: [00:01:01] It was really eyeopening to learn that there are 51 countries and 57 languages represented in Harrisonburg's public schools.
And today we're going to learn a little bit about what education is like in Harrisonburg, specifically through one high schooler named Fatimah.
Jakob: [00:01:18] Yeah. Fatimah honestly gives me a lot of hope for this country and how beneficial it can be to truly be with -- not just next to -- but with people who are culturally different than you.
Cariad: [00:01:29] This show [00:01:30] is hosted by Ahmed Badr, who you'll hear a little bit into the episode.
Jakob: [00:01:34] But this particular story comes to us from Maria Parazo Rose. I can't wait for you to hear our neighbors from Virginia
Maria: [00:01:45] It's early June in 2019 and Harrisonburg High School, in Virginia's rural Shenandoah Valley, is hosting one of the most pivotal moments of a young adult's life: graduation.
Graduation Speaker: [00:01:59] ...by [00:02:00] British writer, C S Lewis says "humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less", the graduating class of 2019 is a large group of high-achieving, and well-deserved individuals that have proven their humility and care for themselves and their community.
Maria: [00:02:20] There are familiar feelings: the pride of walking across the stage to the sound of your name, getting that diploma, the annoying itchiness of the gown that never fits [00:02:30] quite right, but there's something different about this high school.
You can see it in the crowd of parents packed full in a giant stadium, cheering on their children. And you can hear it in the list of names that are called.
Graduation Speaker: [00:02:44] [list of names]
Maria: [00:02:48] Listen to any three names in a row, and they all sound culturally different. [00:03:00] For a rural high school with a graduating class just above 400 students, that may be surprising. But no one in the crowd is surprised here. Mayor Deanna Reed, an HHS alum, herself, gives the commencement speech. And one of the lessons she wants kids to remember is what it means to come from this town.
Mayor Reed: [00:03:22] Sitting all around you are dozens of people representing different cultures and languages and ways of life [00:03:30] than you're own. Embrace those differences, incorporate them into your own culture and how you live your own life. Millions of people grow up and go to school, surrounded by people who look just like them. You've got a head start because you've grown up in Harrisonburg. Our diversity is our strength.
[00:04:00] Maria: [00:04:03] A quarter of the world's countries and 54 languages are represented in Harrisonburg City Public School's entire student body. This diversity is a powerful benefit to the school. But it can get complicated. Laura Feichtinger-McGrath, or "Ms. FM" as the kids call her, is one of the visionaries behind Harrisonburg's language programming which includes migrants, asylees, and refugees.
When students who come from a million [00:04:30] different backgrounds are asked to conform to one set of classroom expectations, things can get hard, fast.
Ms. FM: [00:04:36] And when you're a ninth grader and you can't read in English, and your first-language literacy skills are on a fourth-grade or fifth-grade level because literacy is different in your home country, or because...you've had traumatic experiences, or you haven't had school in five years because you're from a war-torn country...like all those things make it so that...all those kids are in ninth grade.
[00:05:00] Well, what are we going to do with them?
Maria: [00:05:03] These kids' successes are hard won. As part of Harrisonburg High's graduation, the principal asks kids to stand up and remain standing as she calls out different characteristics of the class.
Graduation Speaker: [00:05:15] Please stand if you have won a national award.
Maria: [00:05:21] Those vary back and forth between things that fit this small Virginia town...
Graduation Speaker: [00:05:26] ...if you own livestock.
Maria: [00:05:28] ...and things that represent a [00:05:30] much more diverse population.
Graduation Speaker: [00:05:32] Please stand if you speak five languages. Please stand if you were the first in your family to graduate from high school. Please stand if you are the first in your family to go to college.
Maria: [00:05:47] The cheers for these last two, being the first in their family to graduate high school or go to college, get the loudest cheers.
[00:06:00] But how did the Harrisonburg City Public Schools get here? How does this high school help prepare refugee students for life in America? And what makes that successful with people from so many different backgrounds, socially and culturally and economically? What does it mean to bring them together?
[00:06:30] Ahmed: [00:06:40] Hi, Maria.
Maria: [00:06:41] Hey, Ahmed.
Ahmed: [00:06:42] You know, I, first of all, I love how the announcer said the names at the graduation, like in such a dramatic and exciting way. Uh, it was almost like a sports announcer. That was really, really cool. But also I didn't realize how diverse the school was, especially in such a [00:07:00] small town.
Maria: [00:07:00] Yeah, Harrisonburg is quite a rural city, just above 50,000 people live here, but over 17% of the city's population is foreign-born. Virginia, by comparison, has 8.5M People and 12% that are foreign-born.
So in Harrisonburg, it's a big part of a small population.
Jakob: [00:07:19] And so, why, why are there so many people born in other places coming to Harrisonburg?
Maria: [00:07:26] A few reasons. Many people started coming in the [00:07:30] 1970s because of the seasonal work for migrants. First, in apple orchards, and then in poultry processing plants, there's also a big church community there that sponsors families in other countries who need help to come to the area.
But a really big change happened when Church World Services, which is a refugee resettlement agency, started relocating families to the area in 1988. And since then they've brought people from at least 27 different countries to Harrisonburg.
Ahmed: [00:07:56] And these are families we're talking about. So they're not just going to impact the [00:08:00] job market, but they're also going to impact Harrisonburg's school system.
Maria: [00:08:03] Exactly. It's a huge impact. Right now, about a third of the whole student body, across all grades, are active English language learners. Many schools think of the number of English language learners as a measure of how diverse the school is. But Harrisonburg uses a different metric for diversity.
Basically, they also include students who have already learned English or who have current or former immigration status or who speak a different language at home. And that means that [00:08:30] 4,000 kids or 61% of the student body are culturally diverse. That measure gives a more accurate picture of diversity showing all the people with different cultural backgrounds, not just the ones who are learning English as a language.
Ahmed: [00:08:43] And you live this, right? You're burying the lead a little bit here, but you actually went to Harrisonburg High School.
Maria: [00:08:51] Yeah. Blue streaks for life. Um, I was born in Canada and then grew up in the Philippines with my grandparents and aunt, and then came to Virginia for most of [00:09:00] my childhood and schooling.
Jakob: [00:09:01] And so did you know about all of this when you first got to Harrisonburg High School?
Did you know this about their school system?
Maria: [00:09:08] The diversity, you mean?
Ahmed: [00:09:09] Yeah.
Maria: [00:09:10] Yeah. You know, I think it was something you don't even notice until you're gone. Really. It wasn't perfect. Of course, diversity doesn't automatically equal inclusivity, but, you know, I saw, from a really young age, people of different cultures celebrating different holidays.
Uh, in elementary school, there were [00:09:30] kids who didn't eat lunch with us 'cause it was Ramadan. And that was just a thing that became normal. You learned names that sounded different from yours. And I think it was the little things like that that really embedded into your mindset. For me, it was really important, also, to see people who looked so different from each other, succeeding in so many different ways in classes and in clubs and in sports. I think that had a really big impact on me.
Ahmed: [00:09:57] And what was it like to go back there as a reporter [00:10:00] rather than a student like you once were?
Maria: [00:10:03] Awkward, honestly, sometimes, just cause the teacher's still knew me and I, yeah...
It was awkward sometimes, but I spent the majority of my time with some great kids in this one club for refugee students.
And in particular, a young woman in Fatimah. I got to know her over about nine months from the last semester of high school to her first of college. And. Honestly, I didn't expect when I started spending time with a high school senior to [00:10:30] meet someone who is just way more mature than I was.
Ahmed: [00:10:33] Really?
Maria: [00:10:34] Oh yeah.
We talked about crushes and college, but then she'd just whip out, you know, like Buddhist philosophy and think about how she could affect change in this country that she's new to.
Ahmed: [00:10:45] She sounds so much cooler than you already.
Maria: [00:10:48] She is. And I can't wait to tell you about her -- and the school.
Ahmed: [00:10:52] Then let's get started.
Maria: [00:10:54] Harrisonburg High [00:11:00] is the town's lone high school on the Western edge of the city set against the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's small and rural. There's farmland just beyond the practice fields and a chicken coop across the street. When you enter through the cafeteria doors, you're greeted by a few dozen flags hanging from the high ceilings, representing the different countries the students are from.
And it's likely that you'll walk through the hallways and hear kids laughing in a language you don't know.
In late [00:11:30] April, 2019, I meet up with Fatimah in the drama classroom, putting on stage makeup and getting into costume.
What do you usually do? Is this your makeup?
Fatimah: [00:11:36] Yes, that's my mom makeup basically.
Maria: [00:11:40] Today is dress rehearsal for the place she's in -- written by the school's librarian.
Theater Class: [00:11:44] ...big black bugs bleed blue black blood, but baby black bugs bleed blue.
Maria: [00:11:51] What is the name of the spring play?
Fatimah: [00:11:55] Completely Absolutely Normal.
Maria: [00:11:59] Did you forget for a [00:12:00] second?
Fatimah: [00:12:01] I don't remember the "Normal" part.
Maria: [00:12:06] Performing in a play is a way for Fatimah to face some of her fears. When she first arrived in Virginia, she was reluctant to meet new people.
Fatimah: [00:12:14] That's the way I felt in the beginning. I didn't want to meet anyone. I just didn't want to...I just wanted to stay by myself, even though I need a lot of help.
Maria: [00:12:22] Part of that was the challenge of learning a new language.
And then speaking that new language in public.
Fatimah: [00:12:28] I always hate to speak [00:12:30] English in front of people and I feel so nervous.
Maria: [00:12:33] Imagine how difficult it is to be a high schooler, maybe struggling in calculus or a falling out with a friend or family pressure to be the best. Now imagine doing that in a completely different culture and Fatimah's family is new to this culture too so she can't exactly turn to them for advice when things get hard. The subject of this play is especially tricky.
Would you have been involved in a play like this back home?
[00:13:00] Fatimah: [00:13:00] No way, not even...like, I wouldn't even think for a second about it. No, no.
Maria: [00:13:06] It's about acceptance when it comes to gender and sexuality. Topics that were still pretty taboo to her back in Iraq. Fatimah remembers the first time she saw PDA from a same-sex couple at Harrisonburg High.
It was sophomore year, she was walking down the hallway and...
Fatimah: [00:13:21] ...they were kissing. It was like, "oh my God". I rejected it. Like, I was like, "no, that's not good. This is not the right...this is not the right way to [00:13:30] do it." Like you have to be with the opposite sex.
Maria: [00:13:32] Fatimah when I ran into another girl who also saw the PDA.
Fatimah: [00:13:35] And we were both talking and she was talking with her perspective from the religious and she said, "no, in the Bible it's just Adam and Eve. It's not Adam and Adam...or..." Yes. And I was like, "Oh yeah, that's true. We have the same, the Koran."
Maria: [00:13:51] Fatimah was completely, absolutely, out of her comfort zone. She went home and thought about it for a little while and realized that passing this kind of [00:14:00] judgment wasn't something she wanted to do.
Fatimah: [00:14:03] Me as a human in this world. It just, my job is to respect everyone and love everyone and look at them as who they are, not what they, what they, like, sexual interest of what they have...I have no idea how to explain that in English, but like, I just have to respect everyone. As long as they're not hurting anyone and they're respectful, that's fine.
Maria: [00:14:26] I know. Fatimah is really, really wise. [00:14:30] And the whole time we were together, Fatimah exhibited this open-mindedness in all the ways she treated people. And Harrisonburg High School plays an important role in getting students to adopt that open kind of mindset. It's all by design. As the architect behind the Harrisonburg City Public Schools' programming for English Language Learners, Ms. FM's day to day can be quite hectic.
Ms. FM: [00:14:54] So I feel like 70% of my time during the school day [00:15:00] is spent, uh, as an EMT firefighter.
Maria: [00:15:06] Those fires Ms. FM puts out range from stopping fights in the hallway to helping students pick up their grades. Officially, Ms. FM is the ESL Coordinator for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
Unofficially. She spends her time visiting students' homes to build relationships with new families and helping students come up with post-high-school plans.
Ms. FM: [00:15:27] So, I do most of my [00:15:30] work at other times, um, to be prepared for...hello? [Intercom] I do not see anybody. [Intercom: Okay, thank you.] You're welcome. Um, you know, education is, is interruption after interruption after interruption.
Maria: [00:15:47] Sometimes she gets so busy that she'll take notes on her hand just to remember what she has to finish later.
Ms. FM: [00:15:54] Yes. And sometimes...at night when I'm showering, I'm like, "Oh no!" And so I'll have one of my [00:16:00] kids, like, or my husband come in and take a picture of my hand. Like before it off.
Maria: [00:16:06] Ms. FM's 22 years in the schools have given her a nuanced view on how language programming has changed. She saw a wave of immigrants come to Harrisonburg in the '90s. Back then, there were few English learning resources. In 1989, there was only one ESL teacher for 16 English language learners or ELL students. In [00:16:30] 1993, that ratio became one teacher to 160 students.
At first, Laura helped provide individual language instructon.
Ms. FM: [00:16:39] During this period of time, there were classrooms I was going to and I was taking six, seven, or eight kids out of classrooms.
Maria: [00:16:48] But the number of kids who needed additional help became too much. By 2004, the ESL population in Harrisonburg hit a critical mass.
38% of students were learning English as a [00:17:00] second language.
Ms. FM: [00:17:01] You cannot ignore 38% of your class.
Maria: [00:17:04] She started looking for solutions, but at the time the whole state of Virginia only had a 5% ESL population. So they weren't developing any programming. Harrisonburg had to find its own way without any blueprint.
Ms. FM advocated for the expansion of ESL programming before any of these services were mandated by state or federal governments.
Ms. FM: [00:17:26] How many of you have language learners in your classrooms? [00:17:30] Raise your hand. Is everybody's hand raised? You can't be a teacher in Harrisonburg without having either an active English learner or a monitored former English learner.
Maria: [00:17:44] Now classroom support for ELLs means there's more teacher resources and a combination of classes that are taught partially in English and partially in that student's home language.
Ms. FM: [00:17:54] Oftentimes people say good instruction is good instruction. As long [00:18:00] as there's good instruction. We're good.
Not true. Language learning is a very different experience and needs intentional explicit focus.
Maria: [00:18:15] A third of English learners last year were awarded advanced diplomas in Harrisonburg. That's more than double the state average. They're also staying in school more. The dropout rate was five percentage points lower for English learners in Harrisonburg compared to the [00:18:30] state.
And in the past three years alone, Harrisonburg's on-time graduation rate for English learners is consistently six percentage points above the state average. So, shaping classroom instruction to meet students' needs is one way that Harrisonburg tries to prep kids for life in America, but there's more to it than getting through tests and graduating.
What Harrisonburg has done to aid that classroom learning is craft other cultural programs that support students and their [00:19:00] families: a welcome center to provide resources for families who are new to the school system; annual mandatory teacher training sessions to learn about how to work with ELL, migrant, and refugee students; a homeschool liaison program where different native speakers work with families from different countries; and other clubs with mentors hired specifically to work with refugee populations. It's a multilevel effort.
One program that really helps is the [00:19:30] Newcomer class.
Ms. FM: [00:19:31] To provide that space to learn what the norms are about being in school.
Maria: [00:19:37] The point is to learn what it means to be a student here in a way that helps children feel comfortable.
Ms. FM: [00:19:43] It's interesting. Cause I'm not trying to teach aculturation. I don't want the kids to assimilate.
They don't need to be like middle class white kids. I want us to recognize their fundamental knowledge. I want us to, uh, honor their experiences, but I also know [00:20:00] that we have to explicitly teach some things because just thinking that somebody is sitting back watching and going to get it, isn't going to happen.
Maria: [00:20:12] It's tough. Teachers are in a position where they have to balance teaching their curriculums at a rigorous level and helping students feel welcome.
Ms. FM: [00:20:20] We're not equipped to deal with some of the issues that arise, um, except by showing extreme care.
Maria: [00:20:28] That [00:20:30] care is necessary. There's a whole lot of experience to unpack.
Jakob: [00:20:39] We're so glad you're listening to neighbors. If you have any feedback for us, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you'd like your voice featured on the show, you can record a voice memo and send it to us there.
Cariad: [00:20:51] Also we'd really appreciate a review on Apple Podcasts. So if you would do us a favor and leave us a glowing five star review [00:21:00] there, please make sure to subscribe to the show so you can be updated when new episodes come out.
Jakob: [00:21:05] Alright, we will continue this story right after this short break.
Maria: [00:21:13] Ooh, [00:21:30] yum.
Steam rises from the stove as soon as I come in and Fatimah's nieces giggle while hiding under the dining room table. Fatimah tries to point to all the things cooking on the stove.
So what do we have?
Fatimah: [00:21:55] This is a soup...
Maria: [00:21:57] But she jumps back.
Fatimah: [00:21:58] ...something always scares me...
[00:22:00] Maria: [00:21:59] It scares you?
Fatimah: [00:22:01] I hate that. I know I can't do these stuff.
Maria: [00:22:04] She's not a fan of cooking. There are so many bowls of food -- dolma and chicken biryani and coopa, and more -- that our plates don't even fit on the wide wooden table. It's a girl's night at home, which means that Fatimah's mom and sister-in-law can take off their hijabs. Fatimah's brother, Noor, is on the road for his truck driving job and Fatimah jokes that if he were there, everyone would be on their best behavior.
Fatimah: [00:22:28] But every time, like my [00:22:30] brother comes in, it's just like everything turned out to chaos. Like we go to emergency mode.
Maria: [00:22:35] Really? How? Why? What are the emergencies?
Fatimah: [00:22:39] He's kinda strict.
Maria: [00:22:40] He's 27, but Noor has had to play the man of the house since their family moved to the United States in late 2015. Their family escaped so much danger from their home city, Diyala, in Eastern Iraq, that, here, he's become quite protective. Fatimah's memories of Diyala [00:23:00] are mostly painful. The city was known for its orange trees, but Fatimah says that during the fighting, they were all burned down.
She remembers most of her childhood with a backdrop of war.
Fatimah: [00:23:12] There was a car. I remember the car. It was really fun. It was really old in front of my house. I don't know why someone left it there. Probably just got killed or something really sad.
Maria: [00:23:25] She says this matter of fact, not because it isn't sad, just that violence [00:23:30] was common.
Fatimah: [00:23:31] We turn this car to a way to play. Like we make it like a slide and just like jump on it and try like acting we driving. So it was like our small entertainment.
Maria: [00:23:43] But soon they weren't allowed to play there anymore. Their parents were afraid that people would hide bombs underneath the car. Bomb explosions were commonplace.
Fatimah remembers being afraid to go to school, even though she loves learning. She remembers breaking in all the windows at our school as a [00:24:00] preventative measure to avoid being cut by shattered glass if nearby attacks happened. And the rise of ISIS brought more fighting. She remembers one day in particular.
Fatimah: [00:24:09] We were in the exam room. We had like a final exams. Oh gosh. I still remember that day. It was English.
Maria: [00:24:16] She laughs, but, in the way that she does when she's nervous.
Fatimah: [00:24:20] I was like, we're done with the exam and we were able to hear them, like, the gun machines and everything. We were able to hear all of that and the [00:24:30] bombs and just like it, all of this was so clear, like it was like a death life thinking that day, because if they came in, they would just kill everyone.
Maria: [00:24:44] It felt like danger was all around her -- and it would get worse. When Fatimah was seven, armed men attacked her home and took her father -- an interpreter for the US military. She watched it happen, hiding in a cabinet. After that they had to leave. [00:25:00] Fatimah's mother began an application for refugee status, but while the application was being reviewed, her brother, Omar, disappeared while trying to find out what happened to their father.
Fatimah and her family found out about Omar's death, the same way as they did for her father: on the news.
Fatimah: [00:25:16] Just imagine, like just sitting, getting your lunch and the news it just came up, "if you're missing one of your family members, there was like 10 people that killed and found in the hospital. You can go and check on them."
And that was like a daily, daily news. [00:25:30] Yes. And then it's so weird that you are as a person in existence, and it's just like everything you've done in your life, in one second, you turn into a number in a subtitle in the news. And just like, yes, that's everything you are. Just a number over there.
It's awful. Like how with all of these people and how they impact this world and how that [00:26:00] is, so, they have so many ideas and they have so many hopes, like, all this stuff. They just turned into a number. They don't even know their name. They're just number. They're there. It's awful.
Maria: [00:26:14] Fatimah's mom brought the family to the U S after that.
She didn't want to lose any more of her family.
And now that you're here, does it feel worth it?
Fatimah: [00:26:29] [Arabic [00:26:30] language translation]
Because she said "I lost too much so I think it's still worth it, really."
Maria: [00:26:45] I'm so sad to hear that you lost so many people.
Fatimah: [00:26:57] [Arabic [00:27:00] language]
She said it's not just losing people. It's actually losing ourselves in middle of this chaos because we're not really living. We just surviving.
Maria: [00:27:13] Is that something that, being in a different place, you can get that back? That sense of self?
Fatimah: [00:27:28] [Arabic [00:27:30] language]
She thinks like it's something already broken inside of you. This, it just, a place can not fix it.
Maria: [00:27:50] After dinner. Fatimah shows me her room. The wall is papered over with handwritten messages. Book quotes, advice from teachers, Buddhist prayers. But she [00:28:00] reaches into her closet and pulls down a small box full of personal mementos. She holds up photos of her family explaining who each person is. But she's looking for one thing in particular.
Fatimah: [00:28:10] And then the card somewhere. Where did I put the card on?
Maria: [00:28:14] Fatimah pulls out a birthday card, a little bent at the edges. It's for her cousin and best friend, Mariya, but she's had it awhile. She writes messages in it every year they're apart. She said, she'll send it someday. She reads one [00:28:30] of the messages, translating the Arabic as she goes.
Fatimah: [00:28:33] So it says, "The year stars as it ends and it ends as it begins. This year, I didn't start it with you."
Maria: [00:28:46] Reading this letter to her best friend is the only time Fatimah cries all night.
Fatimah: [00:28:52] And I'm sure as these days separated us, one day we'll be together. I know I'll never find a friend like you in [00:29:00] my whole life.
Everything is so incomplete because you're not here. Because you're not with me.
Maria: [00:29:16] Speaking with Fatimah made me see the smaller, unexpected ways her family's experience can feel isolating. It's scary to be surrounded by violence. It's hard to lose people. It's painful to leave. But now Fatimah has [00:29:30] to go on. She has to figure out high school and find ways to grow up in a new culture. And she can't share the experience with her best friend.
She's afraid to go through all of this alone.
At Harrisonburg High School, Fatimah isn't alone. In Peer Leaders, the club specifically for refugee students, Fatimah can explore these feelings with others who share a similar background. Kajungu Mturi, who leads the group, says that being [00:30:00] together consistently shows students they have support from students and mentors.
Kajungu: [00:30:05] Our goal as a peer leader is we want to see these kids succeed in their lives. That's the most important, I have to mention that.
Maria: [00:30:10] Yeah.
Kajungu: [00:30:11] So whatever we do, I don't know, field trip, stay on Fridays, we want to, them to, reach where they see themself. So we are creating the environment of taking them where they want to be.
Maria: [00:30:26] Like Ms. FM said earlier, ensuring that these students are in a [00:30:30] position to succeed academically requires more than just classroom programming. If you can't concentrate on what you need to study, because you're worried about what you need to do to feel comfortable in a new language and country, then that classroom effort falls flat. Programs like this bridge that gap.
Kajungu: [00:30:46] And then we tell them, whenever you feel stuck you are not yourself. We are behind you. That we are behind you to make sure. We, we support you. You reach you, we, you reach you where you're going.
[00:31:00] Maria: [00:30:59] Kajungu, who came to Harrisonburg from Tanzania, creates dialogues that help kids learn about culture in the US and adjust to their new home.
Some of these conversations happen in teambuilding challenges on ropes courses, or in learning about new foods at their annual restaurant dinner, but a lot of them happen on their Friday meetings.
On one particular, Friday, they talk about their parents. Every teen's favorite topic, right? For some of the peer leaders, it's hard to deal with parents who struggle to catch up to norms in the US.
Aween: [00:31:29] Yeah. [00:31:30] Actually cancelled like a lot of trips for school. Like, just because my parents, like my dad said, "no, you're not going to, you're not going to go to this, you, you're going with us."
Maria: [00:31:40] They talk about how to take up responsibility when their parents aren't sure what to do.
Aween: [00:31:46] I will show you like, if you want, I'll show you my backpack. Like literally all important papers...all the paychecks, all like green cards, all the passports. Everything.
Maria: [00:31:58] Why?
Aween: [00:31:59] Because I'm [00:32:00] the only one who speaks English. My parents don't speak English.
Maria: [00:32:03] In a group of friends. These challenges are easier to tackle.
Fatimah: [00:32:07] A public announcement: if you want to steal their house, go to Aween's backpack.
Maria: [00:32:16] Kajungu says that the Peer Leaders Club does more than help adjust to Harrisonburg culture -- it's also about finding ways to celebrate and maintain the cultures that these students come from. It's about building your [00:32:30] identity.
Kajungu: [00:32:31] If I don't know my culture, the Bob Marley all like to be say, if you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you are, and you don't know where you're going.
For me, if you don't value identity you don't value yourself. Even sometime you education will be nothing if you don't value identity.
Maria: [00:32:50] Learning where you're from and nurturing that connection, just as much as a connection to a new place, teaches you more about where you want to go. Fatimah knows that people [00:33:00] might experience this idea in different ways.
Being a refugee can carry a certain stigma. Imagine your sophomore year World History class: learning about ancient Rome, or the treaty of Versailles in World War I. And then one day your ears perk up because the teacher mentioned something that sounds like a story you've already heard. Fatimah's teacher was explaining different religions around the world and mentioned Islam, which led to a class conversation about modern Islam.
Fatimah raised her hand.
Fatimah: [00:33:28] And I just talked to her about, [00:33:30] like, watching people actually get killed in the streets. And then, afterwards, I just felt, "Oh my God, why did I say that?" Maybe people will start feeling creepy against me and be like, "Oh my gosh. She's saw dead people." So, no, I just felt, like, extra, or I shouldn't say that.
But then I realized, like, people should know these stuffs -- especially if they're not, like, refugees, or they're against the idea of refugees. Like, [00:34:00] you just know the origin of this thing, so you'll understand why they're here.
Maria: [00:34:05] Fatimah thinks having a diversity of ethnicities and cultures and experiences in a classroom can make the information more real.
Fatimah: [00:34:12] We have all these, like, wars and countries we study about. And literally every unit, there's someone who represents this. Like, there's someone, okay, "I lived that. My mom's lived that. My parents did that." And they start talking about it. We have representative of that [00:34:30] place. It's beautiful.
Maria: [00:34:33] And having a diverse community means you see different ways of being. Different ways of carrying yourself and treating others.
And by seeing all these options play out around you, whether conscious of it or not, you're making daily choices about who you want to be.
Fatimah: [00:34:48] This is how you know you're a good person and you can make a good choices when you have a lot of ways and you choose the right one. You makes sense? Okay.
[00:35:00] Maria: [00:35:00] In the final months of senior year, Fatimah leaps through milestone moments, things that she's been excitedly and nervously anticipating all year. She faced her fears on stage -- performing in the spring play, in English, on a subject that used to be totally taboo.
Fatimah plays the mother who's wary of her daughter bringing her girlfriend to a sleepover.
Fatimah: [00:35:28] But one of you have to sleep on this [00:35:30] sofa, you cannot share a bed.
Julie: [00:35:31] I had sleepovers with friends and I shared beds with them.
Fatimah: [00:35:35] You were not dating them.
Julie: [00:35:36] I feel like there's a double standard here.
Fatimah: [00:35:38] You're bisexual, Julie, not asexual.
Maria: [00:35:43] It was a bittersweet moment, this performance. Fatimah's mom and family weren't there. They wouldn't have understood the English.
But she was proud of herself for stepping on stage at all.
Fatimah: [00:35:54] Come on, let's dance.
...maybe I'm barely [00:36:00] alive.
Maria: [00:36:02] Fatimah also went to prom, themed Midnight Masquerade. She wore a teal dress that a family friend sewed for her. Made special to fit Muslim traditions. She couldn't wait to put it on, but as I drove her to prom, all she talked about was how nervous she felt about looking so different.
Fatimah: [00:36:19] I love it. But it's the fact that no one probably will be wearing the same thing. Yeah. You know what? I'll just be [00:36:30] happy cause no one's wearing the same thing.
Maria: [00:36:31] Exactly. You will be so different. You'll stand out.
And then, graduation.
Not the music typically associated with graduation, as we heard in the beginning. This is the Peer Leaders' graduation. A party the students throw to celebrate their senior peers. So, on a sunny May day, the Peer Leaders are scattered around an elementary school pavilion. Playing basketball and taking turns deejaying from someone's [00:37:00] phone, surrounded by friends.
Kajungu: [00:37:02] Seniors.
Maria: [00:37:03] Kajungu speaks, of course.
Kajungu: [00:37:05] Your contribution has taken Peer Leaders far, far, far away. Even though we can't see in, on our eyes, but you have done a lot.
Maria: [00:37:14] And Ms. FM swings by for a few words of encouragement.
Ms. FM: [00:37:18] I would like to say to all of you, though, being part of a community is really, really important. And everybody's presence in this group is super important to all of us. [00:37:30] Um, we lift each other by lifting, right? Let's keep each other focused on, on getting through the end of this year, um, because we need each other's support. All of us.
Maria: [00:37:39] She also makes reminders to do homework. Official graduation is still a couple of weeks away.
Ms. FM: [00:37:45] So when you see each other, make sure you smile and high five and encourage each of you to work hard the next couple of weeks. Okay? Proud of all of you though.
Aween: [00:37:56] ...we're glad to [00:38:00] have you.
Ms. FM: [00:38:00] I'm glad to have you all.
Maria: [00:38:03] Before getting to food, one of the most important parts of the celebration, the seniors stand in a circle and take turns speaking about what they've learned in their time at Harrisonburg High.
There's a lot of bashful giggling and shrugs. It's always intimidating to explain why you love something. But everyone stands up and speaks earnestly.
They smile at their friends around them. And, mostly, their friends tease them back.
[00:38:30] Fatimah: [00:38:30] Okay, so, in the beginning when...so, in the beginning, when I was in the Peer Leaders, in the first year, like freshmen and my sophomore year, I just thought like, I'm doing something that's not helpful for anyone, even for me, like in school. And then, overall, I realize that actually, this is really helpful for me as a human to meet people and just learn about people. 'Cause everyone we meet has something we [00:39:00] don't know.
Maria: [00:39:07] A few months after that, I caught up with Fatimah halfway through her first semester at Eastern Mennonite University. She's studying psychology now and joined the student newspaper. We talked for hours and could have talked more, but in typical Fatimah fashion, she said a lot in just a short time. How do you think being in Harrisonburg has changed you?
[00:39:30] Fatimah: [00:39:30] Oh gosh. Um, it make me exposed to many different people, that it felt scary in the beginning, but then I realized that it wasn't scary. It makes...it will make me grow a lot. I think like just being with different people that have different perspective and different believes and like everything different would make you realize so many things that you may take from them.
Those, like some of these [00:40:00] beautiful things just like adopted to yourself or even change one of like some of the beliefs that you have. And yes, it changed a lot of me as a person and make me grow a lot and still [00:40:30] growing.
Jakob: [00:40:34] Cariad, did you have any thoughts on that story?
Cariad: [00:40:36] I do. Namely, that Fatimah's story and her courage and her openness really moved me.
Jakob: [00:40:43] Yeah, me too.
Cariad: [00:40:43] I feel very grateful that, the teachers in her high school, they're trying so hard to make what must be an incredibly difficult transition a little bit easier. Um, I went to a very culturally diverse primary and high school in London and I can say without a doubt that I [00:41:00] benefited so much from that same thing that Fatimah is talking about. Just being surrounded by so many different kinds of people and cultures, but it was very far from perfect. Um, I don't think that the school I went to back in the '90s was being so purposeful about creating an atmosphere where that kind of diversity is really supported.
I was so happy to hear how positive her experience has been. And I wish that for every kid in every [00:41:30] school.
Jakob: [00:41:31] Yeah, no, I think that's really well said. And I think that, um, I mean, I certainly did not go to a diverse high school in the middle of Missouri. Um, and the older I get and the more experiences I have, it's like very, like, crystal clear to me that we just need each other. Like, we need different perspectives.
I need different perspectives because I only have my own. Um, but when I hear your story, when I hear Fatimah's [00:42:00] story, it's, it's just very enriching. So thanks for producing that story and letting us air it.
Um, so, uh, Cariad I hear you have a surprise for us?
Cariad: [00:42:09] Guess what? We have a new patron on Patreon.
Jakob: [00:42:12] I saw this. My old colleague, that old snake in the grass, Tony Gonzales became a member of the neighborhood. And so can you.
Cariad: [00:42:19] Yes. If you'd like to support us along with our other kind, intelligent, and thoughtful listeners, you can go to patreon.com/neighbors and become a [00:42:30] patron like Tony and help us keep this ship running. We are eternally grateful, and truly depend on it.
Jakob: [00:42:37] All right, uh, here comes some credits.
The Sonic logo is from Dallas Taylor and Defacto Sound. Check out his podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz.
Cariad: [00:42:45] Neighbors is hosted and produced by me.
Jakob: [00:42:48] And me.
Cariad: [00:42:49] Music is from the Blue Dot Sessions.
Jakob: [00:42:51] Resettled is a production of VPN. This story was reported by Maria Parazo Rose. This episode was produced by Gilda Di Carli and [00:43:00] edited by Kelly Hardcastle Jones. Music in their story was by Sandhill and Blue Dot Sessions.
Learn more at vpm.org/resettled. Check out that podcast and listen to it wherever you get your shows. I'm Jacob Lewis.
Cariad: [00:43:14] And I'm Cariad Harmon.
Jakob: [00:43:15] We're reminding you to get to know your neighbors.
Cariad: [00:43:21] ...get to know your neighbors.
[00:43:30] Other: [00:43:30] Neighbors is a production of Great Feeling Studios.