A teacher and her students from war zones

Syrian refugee students in Lebanon participate in a lesson this month during a visit of the European commissioner for humanitarian aid to their school.
Syrian refugee students in Lebanon participate in a lesson this month during a visit of the European commissioner for humanitarian aid to their school. The Associated Press

Every morning when I get to school, I see students from many countries in the hall. They are dropped off early so they can have a hot breakfast before class. The students speak Farsi, Arabic, Pashto, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog and many more languages. They have fled violence and war, and their most compelling desire is to learn English and begin new lives here.

One student has been with me for three years, but this is the first year I have had him in an English class. He was injured in the Iraq War when he was young and he still bears the scars and the trauma. Other students are new to me, but they all share the struggle of learning not only a new language, but a new culture.

The students work from textbooks designed for English as a second language students. They also work on independent reading – books that every kid their age reads – and two supplemental reading websites. During the second half of class, the nine boys work on 12 donated Chromebooks while the girls read, and then they switch. They hand each other the computers carefully, and there is no arguing or play, even though some of these students are only in sixth grade.

Some younger students like for me to sit next to them to explain what words mean – words like “olive” or “bud” or “fig.” The hardest word to explain is “lap,” the kind kids sit on when they’re little and that disappears when we stand up. The students get certificates whenever they finish a level, and I have made a “race course” on one of my whiteboards so they can see how close they are to reading at grade level. They are the most motivated students I have ever had, and I’ve been teaching since 1990.

My hall is filled with a multitude of voices, full of excitement and energy. The Muslim girls wear beautiful hijabs and silken dresses and pantsuits. The boys wear dress shirts and slacks. They are respectful and call everyone “Mister” or “Miss.” They apologize and say “Excuse me” and “Good morning.” They are almost never late to class, they don’t cuss and they don’t argue – much.

Before coming to this school, I never had students who had been raised in a war zone. To me, they were only on the news. Now, they are my kids, and I love them. It breaks my heart that they see themselves portrayed in the media as potential terrorists, the very people their families fled. Occasionally, influenced by the news, other students here will call them that hateful name.

Almost every American came from somewhere else first. Many fled tyranny or violence, but it might have been generations ago, and some of us have forgotten. This new wave of immigrants has as much right to be here as anyone else, and, if they are refugees as my students are, it may be a death sentence if they are not allowed the opportunity.

Robyn Barbour, a teacher at Encina Preparatory High School in Sacramento, has been a secondary school teacher in California and Oregon for 25 years. She can be contacted at