By AMANDA GREENE
Wilmington Faith and Values
Zeyad Aljumaili, 10, read the text of “How Glooskap Found Summer” with a smile on his face, correcting himself and occasionally glancing up at his teacher when he pronounced a hard word correctly.
Zeyad’s native tongue is Arabic, but he has picked up English quickly since his family came to Wilmington last year after immigrating to the United States from Iraq.
Zeyad is a member of a steadily growing sector of students in New Hanover County Schools for whom Arabic is their first language. Out of 28 different tongues represented at district schools, Arabic-speaking students make up the second largest language group in the school system, second only to Spanish, according to district records.
“Zeyad came in at third grade so he had to learn English and learn in English and take the EOGs (end-of-grade) tests, too,” said his ESL teacher Robbyn Novak of his progress. “He could speak a little English when he came, but he’s had good schooling and home support.”
Pine Valley Elementary School has the highest concentration of Arabic-speaking students at six percent of its population, said Principal Rebecca Higgins Opgrand. Parsley Elementary School also has a growing Arabic-speaking population.
Coinciding with the growth in Arabic-speaking students in the district has been a growth in the Muslim community, especially at the area’s largest mosque, Islamic Center of Wilmington.
“In 1987, when I first came here, we had maybe 10, maybe 15 families,” said Musa Agil, president of the Islamic Center. His children have all attended Pine Valley. “Now, we’ve got 140 families and many more who don’t go to prayers. So we don’t really know how many we are.”
The growth in the Muslim community is most visible during the community feast holidays of Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, and Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, Agil said.
Reem Abdalla, the district’s parent liaison to Arabic-speaking parents since 2007, works with many families from Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. She helps them with school paperwork or interprets at meetings with teachers or school officials.
“I think it’s beneficial for some parents to have someone to talk to because they don’t know how the school system works here,” she said. “We need to help children understand how to accept others. This is what freedom is all about.”
To accommodate some of the cultural and religious requirements of Muslim students at Pine Valley, Novak sends emails about Ramadan and fasting students to her fellow teachers when the month-long observance falls during the school year.
“During Ramadan, the students don’t go to the cafeteria with their class if they’re fasting. And when students are absent during the Eids, that’s considered an excused absence,” she said.
Opgrand meets one-on-one with the parents of Arabic-speaking students to make sure they are communicating with their children’s teachers.
“Sometimes the children may go back home for weddings and be gone for weeks for a family visit, and we keep their homework for them,” Opgrand said. “I virtually tell the parents when they come in that religion is not why we’re here. We’re here to love their children.”
Yasmin Abumazen, whose family speaks Arabic and English at home, says her family feels supported at Pine Valley.
“I’ve had teachers over at my house for dinner,” she said. “But outside of school, there’s such a lack of knowledge (about Islam). We’re not what we’re portrayed as on TV.”