This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Little by little, the number of people looking for something better than what they left behind in their home country is steadily increasing throughout the city. Schools across the District are struggling to meet the challenge of educating immigrant students, most of whom do not speak English when they arrive.
Northeast High School seems to have one answer with its learning communities for English learners. The program educates more than 600 students from 91 countries, speaking a total of 60 languages.
These students come to the United States for a variety of reasons. Some are here to be reunited with family, and some are here to learn. Sadly, some are here because their home isn’t much of a home anymore.
To get a glimpse into some of their stories, the Notebook talked with five Northeast High School students about their reasons for coming to America, what their academic transition has been like, and what their hopes are for the future.
Salawat Adam came to the United States in 2014 from Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan. Her father, a former English teacher, decided to move his family to America to get a better education.
“The whole family came here just for one goal – to study, go to college, have good grades,” she said. “That’s why we came here, just for school. In Sudan, we don’t have good schools. So we just came here to study, do our dream here.”
Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country, but Adam got an early introduction to English from her father, the former English teacher. After coming to the United States, she taught her siblings English to help them adjust, she said.
Adam is a sophomore at Northeast High School and continues to learn English in the school’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program. One of the biggest differences for her was the style of teaching. She said that in Sudan, the teachers would actually whack students with a ruler for “doing something wrong” like “if you don’t raise your hands in class.” Her experience at Northeast High is very different and much appreciated.
“Here, the teachers are so nice,” she said. “They make sure we understand everything from them. They help you if you get bad grades, they will help you after school and they are nice teachers. My favorite teachers in school [are] Ms. Salandy and Ms. Fiegel. They’re so nice.”
Adam is a member of Northeast’s Muslim Girls Club, where the members learn about each others’ countries. She enjoys being Muslim, she said, and since she has been in the United States, she hasn’t experienced any mistreatment because of her faith. The people she has encountered are just curious about it, she said.
She is also part of an afterschool running program. Running has always been her favorite activity, but rigid social norms in Sudan made it difficult for girls to participate.
“In Sudan, the boys have everything,” she said. “The boys can do sport. Do anything. But the girls just have to go to school, help your mom at home. You are not [able] to do sport. They say that’s not good for girls.
“In here, you’re free. Everyone know that in America, you’re free. You do everything you want to do. That’s why I am happy I can do everything; play sport and everything.”
After high school, Adam said, she wants to go to college in New York and study to become a doctor so she can help the people of Sudan.
“Here we have insurance cards. Well, in Sudan, you have to pay a lot of money. If you have even a fever, you have to pay a lot of money. That’s why people used to die in Sudan because they don’t have money to go check with the doctor. So I want to be a doctor and go to Sudan. I want to open a big hospital in Sudan so it’s free for anyone. That’s my goal.”
Northeast High School sophomore Mohammad Hakimi came to the United States in January after leaving war-torn Afghanistan.
“I love my country, but the situation, the condition that we had there was not good. Every day, every single day, you can hear explosions next your house. It was a bad condition. That’s why we’re here,” Hakimi said.
In Afghanistan, just leaving one’s home to go to buy food was a scary endeavor, he said.
“Sometimes [my mother] even cried,” he said. “Sometimes she said, ‘That’s enough. I can’t continue. What if tomorrow someone comes and kills us? What’s going to happen?’”
It took Hakimi and his mother two years to flee their homeland, and for both, every day was stressful.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen in the next few minutes,” Hakimi said.
Fortunately, they didn’t give up. Now, Hakimi is happy in the United States and at his school.
Hakimi is part of Northeast’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program and he says he loves his teachers. He is a good student and works hard to maintain his grades.
“They are the best teachers I have seen in my life,” he said. “In Afghanistan, you can’t even see the teachers, because you cannot go in the classes, because you cannot go in the school. But these teachers, the best.”
His favorite subject is physical science and he loves airplanes, but he doesn’t want to be a pilot. He wants to fix them.
“I want to go into it,” he said. “I want to know every single thing in the airplane. I want to fix everything that is a problem in there.”
For a teenager, Hakimi has been through a lot and he knows it. But he realizes that each day is another opportunity for him to succeed and make his mother proud, because at the end of the day, that is what’s most important to him.
“I want to be successful every single second of my life,” he said. “I don’t want to be a loser. I want to show myself, I want to prove myself to my mom. The only person I love in my whole life is my mom.”
Neira Sabljic didn’t think she and her family would ever make it to the United States. They waited for 10 years in Mostar, Bosnia, and now that she is here, it is like a dream come true.
“I didn’t think about that,” said the 14-year-old. “Because I didn’t know if I would ever come to America. It was like a dream. And when it came, I was like ‘No, I can’t believe it.’”
Her grandfather came to the United States in 2001 to get medical treatment after being injured in Germany. Seven years later, her brother followed. And finally, after a decade, they are all reunited.
“The hardest thing was being separate from my grandpa and grandma,” she said.
Now, Sabljic is happy to be reunited with her family, though she misses her dog. She had to leave him behind because her grandfather doesn’t like dogs in the house, she said.
She enjoys being here, but life in Philadelphia is quite a contrast from Mostar.
“[Bosnia] was peaceful,” she said. “And here everyone is hurrying and traffic is crazy.”
Sabljic is a freshman at Northeast High School and is enrolled in the ESOL program. She likes it because she gets to read and write stories. In her free time, she likes to read books like The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, she said.
It’s still early for her to choose a career, but she said she’d like to be a lawyer, a suggestion her parents made.
“My parents think that’s a good job for me because I have an answer for every question," she said
Sabljic is optimistic about her future and would like other students who may be in similar situations to not give up.
“Everyone should hope," Sabljic said. "I hoped, my family hoped, and we came to America. And now we are all together and happy."
It’s been almost three years since 15-year-old Adnan Alkhalili left Daraa, Syria. Alkhalili and his family left in 2014 at a time in which Daraa was under attack by Syrian rebels. Alkhalili said they fled because of "the threat of death or being arrested."
They ended up in Jordan, where they lived for two years before coming to the United States, and Alkhalili studied and learned some English while there, but the education was not sufficient.
"It was good but not that good because the teacher does not give you everything,” he said.
Alkhalili is a sophomore at Northeast High School and feels he is getting a good education. He likes the challenge of learning English in a non-Arabic speaking country.
“[In Jordan] they speak with us in Arabic, and teach us English," he said. “It’s not a good way. But here everything is in English.”
Now that he is safe in America, Alkhalili said that he is is free to be a teenager, and spend time with his family and friends.
“In Philadelphia I like my friends," he said. "I like a lot of things. I like to go out with my family. Sometimes, we go to the zoo. Sometimes, we go to the park. I go with my friends to play soccer. Sometimes we went to the pool and swam."
After graduating high school, Alkhalili said that he wants to go to college and study to be a "teeth doctor." Though it is still early, he is considering a few colleges to study dentistry with a slight lean toward Temple University. He said that he and his family are doing well.
“Now we have a car,” he said. “My father he has a good job. We have a good apartment. Yea, it’s good.”
Gul Sanga, 20, and her family came to the United States in October 2015 from Swat, Pakistan. The economic hardships there brought them to America in search of better opportunities.
“We have a lot of fun there,” said Sanga, a junior at Northeast High School. “But there are no jobs for all the people. There is a lot of financial problems.”
Now, said Sanga, she and her family “have a comfortable life” with everything they need, but with the move comes a tradeoff. Living in a city like Philadelphia “is cool,” she said, but sometimes there is no place like home.
“Swat is a whole green city,” she said. “There is a lot of mountains and fresh water and fresh air. And [here] there is no mountains. I miss my home because I like it. Here we live in a rented home.”
Sanga is enrolled in Northeast’s ESOL program. She likes learning English here, she said, because the school provides her with everything she needs to learn.
“All the teachers are very helpful. They want to make sure we understand everything,” she said.
Math and science are Sanga’s favorite subjects and someday she’d like to turn that passion into a nursing career. Her parents support her and want the best for her, so she wants to make them proud, she said.
“I want to help people,” she said, “And I like medical things like injections.”
“It’s important for me because my family has a lot of expectations for me. They want to see me successful.”
Watch videos of the students being interviewed on the right side of this page.
Contact Notebook staff reporter Darryl Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.