A Maryland School System Helps Refugee Kids Cope with the Puzzling Present and Terrifying Past
The redbrick, one-story building looks, sounds and smells like most other American junior highs—too many walls, lockers clanging shut, shouts above the general din and a mixed aroma of chalk, floor wax and cafeteria food. Fine. Normal. But look closer. Amid the hallway bustle, certain kids stand out. They seem skittish, at times even fearful. Some of them are thin and small. Many are dark-haired and Asian or Hispanic. And among these students, a few seem especially out of place.
Thuan, for example, looks no more than 10 but is actually 16. His size, loping gait and withered left hand are the results of malnutrition in Vietnam and a bout with polio when he was 3. He wears a yellow T-shirt, checked polyester pants, red-white-and-blue track shoes and holds a short green pencil in his good hand. Thuan only recently started at Takoma Park Junior High School in Montgomery County, Md. His English is virtually nil, he can’t add figures and he knows nothing of American ways. But he has been given one distinct advantage: He is enrolled in the county’s METS (Mobile Education Teams) program, created to deal with special cases in county schools on a rotating or “mobile” basis.
Thuan is one of 3,700 foreign children out of 90,000 in the Montgomery County school system. The collective memory of some of these small immigrants could form a short history of contemporary atrocities. They have witnessed decapitations, watched their parents starve to death, seen friends and relatives tortured, been raped and stood helplessly by as brothers or sisters were savagely and casually put to death. But at six Montgomery County junior high schools, these scarred and frightened young people are not left to deal alone with their past and present.
Down the hallway comes Mary Kalandros, a quiet-spoken woman of 50 with short-cut, salt-and-pepper hair. The foreign students immediately surround her with greetings and hugs. With the ease of one who has loved teaching for nearly 30 years, Kalandros answers each child with a word or twinkle of recognition. While conversing with Thuan, Kalandros asks a Vietnamese translator for help.
“Could you tell him that when I see. that smile of his in the morning, that it makes my day?” Thuan listens, touches his withered hand to his cheek, lowers his eyes and finally smiles.
Kalandros says that Thuan, like many before him, will learn English and math and may, someday, even receive a high school diploma and enter college. It may take years, but there is ample proof that foreign children can succeed: On a seventh-grade honor roll, along with the Christine Hunts and Brian Millers, are the names of students Anjali Chawla, Manees Agrawala, Masha Nayvelt and Somalika Tea.
Beyond its image as an upper-middle-class Washington suburb, Montgomery County for many years has had a strong international community. Accordingly, since the 1960s the county has supported an English language program to help these foreign children. Known by its acronym ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), it now operates with a budget of $2.9 million in all schools. Recent years saw a very different kind of foreign student—streetwise kids who had never attended school in their native war-torn countries. Because of them the school system began the METS program two years ago at Takoma Park. In total the young refugees in Montgomery County represent 110 countries and speak 65 different languages. Some share little beyond the legacy of war. “Whenever there was a war,” says ESOL director Maria Schaub, “sure enough, we’d see the kids who were products of it. Our student body became a war map of the world.”
For these raw, timorous kids, even basic skills can be a challenge—starting with how to use a knife and fork and how to tie shoes. One junior high schooler did not know he had to turn the page of a book when he reached the bottom. “They are children with whom you cannot take one single thing for granted,” says Schaub. “Not what they think, how much they know or how they will react.” Kids from El Salvador hide under a table, eyes round with fear, when the fire-drill alarm goes off, and ESOL’s staff has learned to explain the meaning of Halloween to refugee children carefully beforehand. Because some children come to school in the same thin garments day after day, even in winter, Mary Kalandros now keeps “my little boutique, with donated, used warm clothes.”
As Kalandros begins her geography class—which, like all her classes, is also an English lesson—the scene is reminiscent of a one-room school-house. Some 11 students ranging in age from 12 to 17 settle down to listen to the motherly figure in plaid skirt, tailored blouse and no-frills shoes. For today “geography” is limited to following the movements of the imaginary Ryan family: apartment…grocery store…church…mailbox….
Although fingers are busy pushing pencils, it is hard to imagine what thoughts lurk behind the attentive faces. Memories pursue Jorge, a 15-year-old Salvadoran, who looks snappy in his crisp, white shirt and black, shiny shoes. Later he recounts some of his experiences in Spanish: “If you were taken by the army, you were lucky because your parents would at least have some idea of where you were going,” he says. “If the guerillas took you, no one knew where you might be sent. Some of my friends were taken, or were killed or just disappeared. In the coffee plantation where I lived, you would walk through rows of plants and see arms, legs or hands just lying chopped off in the field. In the city it was different. You would see arms and legs lying near the trash, but they didn’t bother to throw them in. I would cry when I saw things like that. I was afraid the same thing could happen to me.” With his mother’s blessing, Jorge escaped to the U.S., at one point enduring a suffocating ride crammed for six hours with five other boys in the trunk of a car.
Miriam, a round and cherubic 14-year-old from El Salvador, has similar memories, which she too can recount only in Spanish: “I saw a lot of death—executions, shootings, bombing. One day my mother went to get the body of a friend who had been murdered. I didn’t go. His head was chopped off, and they cut his brains out. I couldn’t stand to see him that way.”
Then there is the 15-year-old girl who escaped from Vietnam in a boat that was attacked by pirates. On land her hands were tied for six months. When she was finally untied, she would rub mud all over her body to make herself repulsive so that her captors wouldn’t rape her. Another Vietnamese girl, who also escaped by boat, cries whenever she sees a baby. She had been forced to watch as pirates, who preyed regularly on the “boat people,” flung her infant brother into the sea.
Last year, a Central American girl broke into sobs in the middle of class. She explained to Kalandros that she had been thinking of the time she was 12 and soldiers broke into her home, tied her mother to a chair and raped the little girl. In her wide-awake nightmares she still experiences that horror again and again.
Many of the children cry—like the Ethiopian boy who remembers his father is still a political prisoner in Ethiopia, or the Cambodian boy who watched his mother starve to death in a forced labor camp. She had given him and his brother all her food.
Kalandros, wiping away her own tears, tries to cajole the best from her students. She and her fellow METS staffers—all bilingual—serve as an emotional bridge into a world the kids are laboring to understand. Some of their successes are on record. When the METS pilot program began, none of its 13 students could pass the required reading tests, and only one of them could pass the math test. By year’s end, seven passed reading and six passed math.
Many of their achievements are not measurable on any such scale. Tiny miracles happen daily. “After what they’ve been through, we are usually the first ones they can hang onto,” says Kalandros. “We’re an anchor, we can make it right when they’re lost.”
Adds Vilma Monteil, the program’s counselor and herself a refugee from Cuba 25 years ago: “I listen to a lot of horrible stories, and I don’t really have solutions. But I do have faith that these kids are going to make it because of their inner strength. And I can tell you that we’ve had many more successes than failures.”
That is not an idle boast. Several ESOL students have become valedictorians of their classes, and several are already college bound. “I taught one little sixth grader from El Salvador,” Maria Schaub recalls. “When he came here he spoke no English, hadn’t been in school for years and had no concept of numbers at all. Now he has graduated high school and is on his way to the University of Maryland.” Schaub pauses. “My baby,” she adds, smiling.