Immigrant Families: Troubles Abroad and at Home

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Provided by Martina Sadeek

Senior Martina Sadeek (left) is shown here with friends in Egypt. She moved to the US with her family when she was 9 years old. Speaking mainly Arabic, she struggled with learning the language. She states, “I think it would [take] a longer time to learn English for immigrants who are currently quarantined. The way that I learned English required me to be able to communicate with people in school and outside of school.”

Leslie Tello, Editor

For senior Dina Hatem Youssef, school this year has started at 5:00 pm and ended at 9:07 at night. She began the school year in Cairo, Egypt, having travelled there in July to attend her sister’s wedding. The impact of the pandemic is less felt there, according to her. “There are less cases here and it honestly doesn’t feel like COVID is happening. I wear my mask, but many people don’t. Many things are still open for dine in and things seem normal for the most part.” She mentioned that although workers wear masks, customers are not required to. 

In an attempt to stop the spread of COVID in the states, a draft regulation has been proposed that would prevent re-entry by US citizens and legal residents if an official “reasonably believes that the individual either may have been exposed to or is infected with the communicable disease,” according to documents obtained by the New York Times

This did not impact Youssef directly as she returned safely on Friday, August 21st. However, because her mother and sister will be returning to the US next month, she stated that she hopes the proposal will not end up happening. “But my family takes precautions,” she added, “and will even get tested if need be.”

She stated, “If people had known they couldn’t come back, they wouldn’t have gone in the first place.  So I just don’t think it’s fair. If they asked people to get tested, then sure, but they should give the resources for the people to get tested quickly.”

Senior Martina Sadeek will also be traveling to Egypt within the next few months. Regarding the pandemic, she states, “The COVID restrictions will limit the amount of places I can go visit and it will also limit big family reunions.” She is concerned about the proposal because she states that her studies and future rely on her being in the US. Sadeek said she would be lost and scared if she were not able to return home. 

From left to right, senior Dina Youssef is shown here with her sister and sister-in-law at her sister’s wedding in Cairo, Egypt. If she were to be barred from returning, she states, “I would be very upset but I’d get tested and be on my way. I’d try everything I can to make sure I get home.” (Provided by Dina Youssef)

As of right now, the New York Times states, “The documents appear not to detail how long a citizen or a legal resident would be required to remain outside the United States.”

Possible changes in legislation is far from the only thing caused by the coronavirus that is affecting immigrant families. Although distance learning has helped Youssef do her work remotely, it has also caused issues for others, with one of the impacted groups being English-learning students.

Youssef was born here with her brother and English was her first language. She understands Arabic, though she cannot speak it well.

But unlike Youssef, Sadeek is an immigrant, mainly speaking Arabic when she came to the US with her family from Egypt. At only 9 years old, the transition was difficult for her with her first year being the toughest; she had a hard time making friends in school on top of not comprehending the language. 

Freshman Vanesa Blas also had difficulty with her peers. “In second grade, I got bullied and people would gossip about me in English so I wouldn’t understand them.” She came to the US at age 7 from Mexico.

In second grade, I got bullied and people would gossip about me in English so I wouldn’t understand them.”

— Vanesa Blas

Recently graduated senior Samanta Castillo Leví still has trouble with her classmates to this day, despite having “dominated the language” and studying English since kindergarten. “I don’t know if some classmates don’t like me because of my accent or what, but they try to keep their distance. Sometimes it affects me and makes me sad, but I try my best at communicating and doing my job.” She arrived only 3 years ago from Mexico as well.

Their experiences are not unique. According to the California Department of Education11% of students in the Victor Valley Union High School District are learning English, and in the Victor Elementary School District, the number is even higher at 17%

Under normal circumstances, acclimating to a new environment for these students is difficult. The New York Times states, “Nearly a quarter of immigrants and their American-born children live in poverty, and Hispanic immigrants, in particular, are less likely to have access to a computer or home internet service. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, English-language learners were at high risk for chronic absenteeism.” 

The majority of students in the district come from low-income families and many come from Hispanic households. These trends are apparent at UP as well, as 76% of the student population come from low-income families and 66% are of Hispanic descent. 

To combat the lack of computer and home internet access, the district has offered distance learning resources, which included distributing Chromebooks to those that need them and providing VVUHSD buses to serve as hotspots throughout the community. Those still seeking help with technology are encouraged to contact the TechED department through email at [email protected] or call them at 760-955-3214.

In addition, the district is still handing out lunch to those who need it, although they will only be giving out meals to students enrolled in VVUHSD as of August 11th, as announced in an email sent to VVUHSD families. 

Even though English-language learners are at risk for absenteeism, it can impact anybody. 

“The bottom line is that the more days of school a student misses, the poorer his or her performance will be, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, or poverty status. In order to help students succeed in school, policymakers should make reducing absenteeism a top priority,” stated former National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, Elaine Wess in a press release for the Economic Policy Institute

Unfortunately, the effects of absenteeism can be seen in many schools in the district. For instance, 27% of all students are chronically absent at Imogene Garner Hook Junior High School. The national average is 12%. The website greatschools.org, a nonprofit dedicated to rating schools based on many criteria such as test scores, an equity overview, and discipline, gave Hook a rating of 1 out of 10. 

Recently graduated senior Jonathan Vasquez’s cousin, who migrated from Guatemala earlier this year, attended Hook before the summer. Vasquez has helped him adjust and become more accustomed to the culture. “I helped him with his geometry homework and would also explain what certain words and gestures meant.” Before the quarantine, they lived in the same household. Now, his cousin is on his own. 

“Unfortunately, he isn’t staying with us anymore which means he is unable to get help for his online classes. He is the only child which means he is bored out of his mind,” said Vasquez. “Thankfully, we were able to get a Chromebook for him to work on his assignments from home.”

Even though school is still in session, for students with limited access to computers and internet, limited understanding of the language, and limited support from people in their household, this quarantine can mirror the effects of absenteeism. 

Many immigrant students learn English by interacting with others. 

“At first, I wouldn’t understand anything until my teachers would highlight important details and tell me to translate it when I got home,” said Sadeek. “The way that I learned English required me to be able to communicate with people in school and outside of school.”

When asked how quarantine would have affected her during her first year immigrating to America, Blas responded, “I think it would have affected me a lot. Teachers were the ones who helped me learn English so not hearing them in person would have slowed down the progress. And also not having anyone who could help me at home would have made it more difficult.”

Castillo Leví also relies on her teachers if she needs help, as well as a translator.

To students struggling due to this situation, Blas advises them to not give up because at the end of the day, their hard work will pay off. 

Vasquez’s advice is, “to preserve through the uncertainty of our current situation. We are all in this together.” He also states that they should not procrastinate and slack off because education is very important.

Leví states that they should use the extra time to study and ask their friends if they need help. “They need to be confident and believe in themselves. It is not easy to learn more languages, but the thing that they are doing shows how strong they are.”

Sadeek mirrors that thought. “My advice for English learners would be never to give up on what you came here for. It’s super hard at first and you might have a lot of self-doubt, but practice makes permanent. Don’t be ashamed when you can’t speak or understand because one day everything will make sense and never stop learning… because even after spending years in America, I am still learning and so is everyone else.”