Co-written by Carleigh Rahn and Brianna Henriquez
Every day, television channels tell heart-wrenching stories of war-torn countries and refugee crises. Here, enveloped in wealth and opportunity, it is easy to believe that these events are far away and impossible to address. However, the local community is more global than we think.
America has always emphasized the melting-pot narrative: migrants come for freedom, and as they meld that freedom with their national and cultural heritage they give the American stew a new and distinct flavor. Foreign-born students and teachers at Valley are representative of all migrants in their effort to carve out a place in America while remaining true to the traditions of their countries of origin.
What America Means
Earth science and special education teacher Violet Dube came to the United States to further her education in 1999. Dube was a teacher in her native Zimbabwe, but she chose to leave because of its underfunded special education programs, a cause that she cared for deeply.
When she arrived, Dube found that, contrary to her expectations, America was a land of opportunity for everyone, not just natural-born citizens. Dube says that the significance of America in her life can be boiled down to one word: freedom.
“You can branch off and say freedom or this or of that or that or that, but just the word freedom on its own [characterizes America],” Dube said. “Your voice is heard as a person. You’re free to voice your concern and it’s heard. You are free to say something and to be a group, you’re free to just live, you know that whole freedom to just be alive and have support from these structures America provides.”
Along with his brothers and father, senior Ferdous Ali emigrated from Afghanistan in 2014. Surrounded by his many cousins, Ali feels blessed to live in America.
“In my country, there is war. You can’t go to school, you can’t work, you just can’t do anything,” Ali said.
Similar to Dube, Ali felt welcomed when he came to America. Ali said it was a hard transition, but with the help of others, it became easier.
“The first day of school, it was hard I didn’t know English,” Ali said. “Some students helped me, helped me find my class. But in Afghanistan, no one [helps] you.”
Finding a New Home
In some countries, political instability, resulting in war and terror forces families to flee their homes in order to survive. The violence in Uganda forced senior Ushindi Namegabe and his family to leave theirs. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in Uganda, Namegabe and his family made the difficult choice to finally come to the United States. During wartime, when Namegabe was a young child, his mother was sexually assaulted by three stationed soldiers. When his father tried to protect her, the soldiers took him away and killed him.
“[My family] had to run to Uganda to see if we will be safe there, that’s when I became a refugee. Now me and my family made it here [to the] USA, the land of opportunities,” Namegabe said. “I thank God each and every day [that] I’m still alive. Not so many make it out alive and I pray nothing but peace upon Congo and other countries that are going through horrible stuff people don’t deserve.”
Like Ali, Namegabe says that the educational opportunities in America are much greater than those in his home country.
“What I have seen here is school is free which is very good opportunity for a lot of kids to get education. Back at home, school was very, very expensive as much as I wanted to go to school so bad, I couldn’t because of school fees,” Namegabe said.
Every nation, and even every region within a nation, has its own distinct culture. Coming to America doesn’t erase those cultural influences.
Even as she embraced her adopted country, Violet Dube found ways to continually connect with her heritage and roots in Zimbabwe. Conversations with her family are conducted using a mix of English and Ndebele (a Zulu dialect), and she has found ways to make African foods using American ingredients. Dube says that America has allowed her to fulfill her dreams without asking her to give up too much in exchange, and she thinks that her experience is one that is common to most immigrants.
“I’m deeply grounded and the way I was when I was back home I feel I am still the same thing,” Dube said. “As long as you have your goals and you have them shaped the way you want, the American culture allows you to live those in your own way. There’s no one way to get where you want in this country.”
Junior Zulma Hernandez also feels connected to her home country. Her parents were the first generation to leave El Salvador, making Zulma the first in her family to be born in America. Even in a news country, Hernandez was raised with El Salvadoran traditions, specifically spicy food and a tight-knit family.
“In Hispanic communities, the kids live with their families until they get married, they can have a job and everything, but until they are married they live with their families. I’m going to live with my parents. I can’t even imagine living far away,” Hernandez said.
Despite many misconceptions Hernandez faces, she is proud to be El Salvadorian. Being raised in Loudoun County doesn’t strip Hernandez of her identity and culture.
“When people ask me, I always say I’m El Salvadoran. I don’t say I’m American,” Hernandez said. “Then a lot of people say ‘You’re white! You [were] born here! You’re American!’ No, I’m not. I’m El Salvadoran.”
Having grown up in the English Language Learners program, (ELL) Hernandez knows what it’s like to feel a little different. Though she has since aged out of ELL, Hernandez still feels a sense of responsibility to the program and the students still learning.
“People try to help the ELL kids. Some ELL kids want to drop out of school because they just don’t get it and they need help,” Hernandez said. “There are American kids that don’t want to help the Latinos, and it’s not bullying, it’s just ignoring them. That really [makes the ELL kids feel] down. They need motivation.”
This problem inspired Spanish and ELL teacher Sandra Curtis to create the International Club, a place where ELL students and native English speakers can connect. Curtis wants to encourage students to get involved and become aware of the different cultures and nationalities present at Valley.
“The purpose of the International Club is to showcase the different cultures in our community and in our school with the intention of strengthening relationships and promoting acceptance of diversity,” Curtis said.
The International Club unites the ELL program with students interested in global studies, creating a group that recognizes and celebrates diversity. By incorporating the perspective of the ELL students, the club hopes to expand their vision and hone their purpose. The ELL population has more than tripled since 2004, and now includes over 2000 students.
“We’re growing and we’re receiving more students from different countries so the need is definitely there,” Curtis said. “So not only the school, but the community is aware of all the different cultures living here and how diversity can really enrich the community.”