Young Emigres Question What Obama Means For Them

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An international panel representing 22 countries gathered last week in Brooklyn, New York, to mark the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama.

Unlike their senior counterparts in the hallowed halls of the U.N, these observers were crowded into rows of wood and metal chairs, in an overheated third-floor high school classroom. Together with their teachers and principal, the entire 11th grade of Brooklyn International High School at Lafayette gathered to witness American history. But before the ceremony began, they voiced questions for the incoming President:

“What do you feel now?” a boy from Zaire wondered aloud. “Are you nervous?”

“What is your plan for immigrants?” asked a girl from Guinea, as her friend, from Haiti, nodded agreement.

“What is your plan for education?” a student from Pakistan queried. A boy from India seconded that – asking about money for college, too.

The questions bubbled forth: Did you sleep last night? Can you stop the war in Iraq? What about the environment? Can you make the economy better? How does it feel to be the first black president?

One of six schools that share the Lafayette High School campus – alma mater of such notables as Larry King, Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax and illustrator Maurice Sendak – the International High School enrolls about 325 students from 50 countries, as part of a 10-school network designed to serve the city’s newest immigrant students. Another International School in Brooklyn was the city’s top-rated public school, according to the Department of Education’s 2008 Progress Reports, for making the greatest academic progress among the most challenged students.

About one in four New York City high school students was born overseas, according to the DOE. And the trend appears to be growing: New-immigrant students represented 13 percent more of the class of 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available) than were present in 2006. And more than two-thirds of the most recent arrivals, 69 percent, came to New York during or after ninth grade – to a city, a culture, a language, and a school system that requires competency and exit exams, in English, prior to graduation.

The promise of education and economic opportunity lures many foreign-born students to the States, but too many are thwarted by daunting credit, language, and graduation requirements: Only 30.8 percent of English language learners graduate from traditional high schools in four years, and 26 percent drop out. The International High Schools graduate more than twice as many students – 65 percent – in four years as the mainstream schools, and lose only 5 percent of students as dropouts.


The students waiting for the inauguration were new to the country and to its culture; for all assembled, this was the first American election they had experienced. Across one wall of the classroom stretched a quote from e.e. cummings that applied as much to the students as to the new commander-in-chief: “The hardest battle is to be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else.”

Students wondered out loud about the pomp and ceremony, and whether the new president would have any effect on their lives. Would the much-promised “change” be real? Would Obama really matter to them? A teacher passed around boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts donut holes to make the waiting pass more quickly. “That’s halal, right?” asked a Pakistani boy as he took a chocolate glazed.
As the luminaries were announced, many students didn’t recognize figures familiar to American viewers. Not Aretha Franklin, or George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Kennedys, Clintons and Carters floated past on the television screen, unremarked. When a wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney rolled into view, one boy asked, “Who’s that, Bush’s father?” as another said, “Nah, just an old man.” But a third boy knew, and said, “No, he’s the old vice-president, Cheney.”

When Obama’s daughters filled the screen, the girls began to cheer. And when Barack Obama appeared, poised on the carpet before his public entrance, even the boys began to whistle and clap, stomping their feet as Obama strode the walkway to his seat. Kids cheered, adults shushed. Throughout, teacher Sean Burke took careful note of teachable moments – writing, on the blackboard, the name “Aretha Franklin” when the singer rose in tribute, and later, “Oath of Office” as it was administered to vice president Joseph Biden.

“They’re immigrants, they’re connected with their home countries,” Burke said. “But with this inauguration, they’re taking ownership now, of their lives in the U.S.” He used a long transom pole to open a tall window and get some fresh air as more teachers and students pushed into the room, and stood against the walls.

Rick Warren’s invocation closed with the Twenty-third Psalm. Many students spoke the lines a beat ahead of the pastor’s cadence, anticipating him, phrase for phrase. After Aretha and the swearing-in of Joe Biden – after Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman – more than a few restless kids asked for a bathroom break. No, came the answer, not now. Watch.

Obama stepped up. The room stilled. The chatting boys leaning back on their chairs went quiet. A girl who, seconds before, had been counting invitations to her best friend’s baby shower let them fall in her lap. Obama spoke the oath – so quickly, after so much waiting – and for a full two minutes, the television broadcast was inaudible, overwhelmed by cheering. Even Burke and his peers wept and hollered when the oath was done – and then, asked the kids to quiet down and pay attention.

Symbolism and substance

The enthusiasm was contagious, but whether the students really understood the historic import was uncertain. According to social studies teacher Sherein Sultan, most of the kids watching Obama’s inauguration had no knowledge of the civil rights movement – including the struggles for voting rights and school desegregation – before the presidential election, because they all arrived in the U.S. after eighth grade, when social studies curricula cover the 20th century. “They had no idea what happened here in the 1940s and 1950s,” Sultan said.

Many students, she added, come from African nations. They see little novelty in black leadership: “They say, ‘My country had a black president. What’s the big deal?'” Part of her challenge has been to close the gaps in her students’ knowledge – they knew that slavery existed in the 19th century, she said, and about Obama now, but little about what lay between.

But, she says, they see their stories in Obama, even without knowing the particulars of the slave trade, or of Montgomery’s bus boycotts and Bull Connor’s police dogs. “A man with a strange name, just like theirs – they see themselves in him,” says Sultan, who was born in Egypt and educated in New York’s public schools and Egyptian and American universities.

“I do, too,” she said. “I feel proud for the first time. This is the first time America is including me in the top. I feel like I’m being represented. All of a sudden, biracial people, just like me, are at the forefront.”

Youthful skepticism

After Obama’s inaugural address, students from Egypt, Panama, Pakistan, Tibet, Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire talked about race, college, and service – and gave advice to the 44th president as he ordered his priorities.
“Barack Obama is half black and half white,” said Esther Dorce, of Haiti. “He comes from a white belly, not a black belly. People need to stop calling him black – that’s racism. They should say, half-half. People just see his skin color, they say he’s black. Why don’t they say, half-white? I’ve been asking that question ever since he was elected.”

Fady Mehkael came from Egypt two and a half years ago. He’s part of a school community service group that serves meals to the poor and people with HIV, and routes food from city Greenmarkets to local soup kitchens and food pantries. “I’m proud of today,” he said. “Black and white, they’re together.”

“Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day,” said Hm Papon, of Bangladesh. “He was fighting for African-Americans’rights.” Added Fady, “Today is the result of the fighting.”

Hm continued, “Right now, we have an African-American president, and in his speech he said, ‘Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, white, black—all the cultures should be one culture, should be the American culture, so the change can come.’”

“For us to make one country, for us to be united, it’s the people who have to do it,” said Dorce. “In order for Obama to help the whole nation, the people have to step in, too.”

“He will do nothing for me, Obama,” countered Stephen Nash, from Panama. “He’s not going to change things in one day, or in one year.”

“I think Obama, he is not dishonest, because he says he wants change,” said Mandognin Bamba, born in Cote d’Ivoire. “Obama, he gives us our hope. My child can be President, if he is born here.” (“Yah, you married, now?” teased one of the boys.)

“You don’t know what will be,” scolded Aissatou Diallo, from Guinea. “You have to give time.”

Time is pressing, though, for these students. Each is on track to graduate in June 2010 – “In’shallah,” Hm shrugged – and paying for college looms large.

“I hope Obama makes big changes in the country, so that when I start in college, I have enough money for my classes,” said Dorce, who aims to become a corporate lawyer.

“The economy is so bad because we are paying for the wars,” said Nash.

“The whole nation is in debt,” said Dorce. “War is money.”

A parting wish

All the other 11th graders had packed up – it was past time for lunch. In parting, Diallo said, “We wish him good luck, because he has the hardest job.”

“Bring peace to the world!” wished Morshad Alam, who hails from Bangladesh. “America can do it.”

“Please, stop the fighting,” said Hm. “God will help you. You can do it.”

“He can do it,” Hm continued to his friends, gently pumping one fist raised head-high. “Yes, we can!”

– Helen Zelon

This article has been corrected. The correct country of origin for Aissatou Diallo is Guinea, and for Hm Papon and Morshad Alam it is Bangladesh. Also, students from 50 countries, not fewer, attend the high school. And there are now 10 schools in the DOE’s international network. 1/29/08

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