They come from 22 different countries — Sudan, Guatemala, India, Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam, Honduras, Iran, Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, Philippines, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Myanmar, Yemen, South Korea, China and Ecuador.
Some are refugees who were granted asylum; some immigrated with their families after years of waiting for visas. Others risked perilous illegal border crossings to escape violence, poverty or unthinkable hardship in their country. They’re all English to Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, students at Groves High and they’re working hard to get an education and live the American Dream.
The district employs just two ESOL teachers and one teacher’s aide, Velma Singly, to work with the 73 students. Teacher Magda Kahn speaks fluent Spanish and English and a few survival phrases in French, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Japanese and Vietnamese. The other teacher, Bonnie Ward, is not multi-lingual – “I’m from the hills of Kentucky,” she said. “I only speak English and country.”
They rely on patience, humor, compassion and lots of Google searches to break through barriers and learn as much as they can about all of their students. Kahn’s experiences as a Cuban immigrant drive her to give them a successful start to their new lives in the U.S. Kahn has taught in local schools for 39 years.
“I was going to retire last year but I got cold feet,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. Who is going to reach them. You’ve got to reach them. You’ve got to get under their skin somehow.”
Kahn made the connection with Truc Nguyen from Vietnam and Enyang Liu from China during the two years they were in her classes. Both came knowing little to no English but were named valedictorian and salutatorian of the Groves High Class of 2016.
“We practiced and practiced their accents and they did their speeches in English,” Kahn said.
Truc and Enyang were also selected by the State Superintendent Richard Woods as ESOL STAR Students.
They were honored at a governor’s mansion reception last year.
Enyang now goes to Armstrong and Truc took a semester off to earn tuition. She has been accepted to start school next term.
“I fight for them. Someone has to,” Kahn said.
Many of the ESOL students have large gaps in their education. Some spent months or years in war torn regions or as refugees and had little opportunity for education.
“Some of my students have never gone to a formal school,” Kahn said. “I have a student from Sudan who never learned to write.”
But in the U.S. the government requires all school-age children – documented or not - to attend school and become academically proficient and productive.
The district’s ESOL Program goal is to provide equal educational opportunities to students whose English is limited. They place them in an English-rich environment to help them become proficient in English as soon as possible. The district has six ESOL cluster centers for elementary, middle, and high school students and five ESOL schools. High school students attend Groves, middle schoolers go to West Chatham Middle and elementary school students may attend May Howard, Port Wentworth, Rice Creek, Windsor Forest, Garden City, Godley Station, Gould, Hesse or Pooler elementary schools.
High school students come to Kahn’s ESOL classes a couple times a day to work on their English. But they have to pass all the same required courses as everyone else so they attend regular classes as well. Once they pass an English proficiency exam they can move out of the ESOL program.
The strength of their education in their native language and their ability to cope with their experiences as immigrants has an impact on their success, Kahn said.
She recalled the work behind an emotional and academic breakthrough with two traumatized refugee siblings who went on to become honors students. Their parents sent them out of the country on their own and pirates attacked their boat. While hiding in a cabinet they saw the other refugees being killed. They spent two years in a camp in Taiwan before enrolling in her ESOL classes.
“So many of them have been through so much just to be able to live better,” Kahn said. “Not all of them achieve their dreams but most of them do. I have kids who graduated 20 years ago. Some send Christmas and birthday cards and some own businesses in town. She pointed across the street. Her carefully manicured nails were painted dark green with white swirls.
“One of my students owns a restaurant across the street,” she said. “Another one owns a nail shop.”
Guillermo Peralta, Mexico
Guillermo Peralta and his family went through a complicated and costly six-year process to immigrate legally.
“I just caught a plane from Mexico City. It took six years to get a visa, a lot of money and each of us had to fill out a pile of paper this tall,” Guillermo said as he held his hand one foot above his desk.
Guillermo, who is from a town near Mexico City, said drug cartel violence that has devastated many parts of Central America was not an issue for his family. They wanted better educational opportunities. He said his school in Mexico operated for just five hours a day, including an hour-long lunch break.
“I came for the knowledge. I really wanted to study more and further my education,” he said.
Kim Sian Sang, Myanmar
Kim Sian Sang has all the makings of an all-American teen heartthrob – dark moppy hair and a boyish grin. But he’s too busy getting to know his father again and perfecting his English to bother with breaking hearts. For the first time in his life, Sang is not struggling through the effects of human rights abuses that resulted from decades of fighting between ethnic minorities and oppressive military groups in Myanmar (also known as Burma).
His father is among more than 100,000 Burmese people who have fled to Thailand, risking death, abuse and forced labor by opportunists who lay in wait for desperate refugees, according to the US State Department. He spent three years in a Malaysian refugee camp before he was granted asylum to the U.S. After another three years his father was able to sponsor Sang and the rest of his family. They were reunited six months ago.
Sang told a frightening story about armed Burmese soldiers demanding payments from his father, who was transporting goods to small towns near their home in Rangoon.
“The military have their own power and they do whatever they like,” Sang said thoughtfully as he struggled to find the English words to describe his experience.
When his father refused, he was threatened and his passport was seized. His father risked the treacherous escape route to Malaysia. During the six years he was away, his mother had the difficult task of eking out a living and raising the children on her own.
But the US government granted asylum to more than 8,000 Burmese between October 2015 and May 2016. Sang and his family were among them.
“I like it here. We get freedom,” he said with a grin. “It’s not too hard for me. I know a little English. The teachers and friends are good. They; how to say? They didn’t make it like I am alone.”
Nelida Arrazola, Honduras
Nelida Arrazola’s life in Honduras was better than most.
Honduras is arguably one of the world’s most dangerous places. In 2014 it had the world’s highest homicide rate of 74.6 homicides per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.S., in comparison, had 3.9 homicides per 100,000 people.
Honduras, one of Latin America’s poorest countries, was caught up in a battle between Central American cartels that were trafficking illegal drugs into the United States. The ordeal led to government corruption, instability and rampant crime.
But Nelida lived comfortably with her grandmother while her parents worked as laborers in the United States. They sent money to pay for her to attend high school.
Her life must have appeared too good.
“One day a man — just a bad guy from Honduras — said if you want to live you have to pay.”
Her mother, a house cleaner on Tybee Island, worked even harder to send more money.
But Nelida’s grandmother died and more men swooped in to capitalize on the vulnerable 16 year old.
Her boyfriend helped take care of her, but impregnated her in the process. The extortionists took full advantage.
“They came back and they said if you want to live you pay or you die,” she said.
This time, instead of paying another ransom, Nelida’s mother paid a coyote to smuggle Nelida out of Honduras, across Guatemala and up hundreds of miles through Mexico to the Texas Border.
According to the US State Department about 1 million Hondurans live in the US. An estimated 600,000 of them are undocumented. Additionally, an estimated 100,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed the US border seeking safety since 2012. It helped ignite an equally ugly industry — human smuggling.
Nelida was packed in a tractor-trailer container with other undocumented immigrants.
“It was terrible. I was 16 and 5 months pregnant and I was so hungry and scared for my baby. They only gave me eggs and scraps of bread,” she said.
When they finally arrived at the Texas border the coyote opened the doors to their hideaway and told them to run as fast as they could across the Rio Grande to avoid “la migra” — the immigration police.
“People were pushing me and shouting,” Nelida said as tears welled up in her eyes.
Her voice cracked and the corners of her mouth turned down. She cradled her stomach as she struggled through the rest of her story.
“I fell on a rock and I started bleeding,” she said. “I was crying and praying because I wanted my baby to live.”
The crowd of desperate immigrants splashed past her as she struggled to stay afloat. One man took pity and came back for her. Nelida said he carried her to safety because she was too weak to walk. But her ordeal was far from over.
The coyote locked them away in the safe house for a month.
Nelida rolled her eyes as she recalled her daily ration of eggs and the fear that gripped her when her unborn child stopped moving. To make matters worse, someone contacted her mother and extorted even more money for Nelida’s safe return.
She occupied her mind with thoughts of completing her education and raising a healthy, happy child.
“I was very scared.” she said.
After a month in the safe house Nelida and 30 others were locked in a secret compartment built in the back of a tractor-trailer container and taken on a three-day journey to Houston.
“My belly was as big as the width of the trailer,” she recalled. “I was in pain.”
A relative met her in Houston and took her to her mother in Savannah. But it wasn’t a joyous reunion.
“My mother didn’t want me to go to school. She said I got myself pregnant so I needed to clean houses with her so I could take care of my child,” Nelida said as she wiped away tears.
She cleaned houses on Tybee Island for three months until her motionless belly began to cramp.
“It hurt so bad. I thought I was losing the baby because it wasn’t time. It had only been eight months. I was in pain,” she said. “But I had to keep cleaning.”
Later that night her mother took her to the hospital where she had a healthy baby boy. A few days later she was back cleaning houses. Nelida’s dreams of getting an education and giving her child a safe and secure life seemed to be slipping away.
Then her father, who was working in Oregon, said she could live with him and go to school. Nelida made her way there but her stepmother insisted that she take a GED exam and work full time. Nelida called her mother in desperation once again. They worked out an agreement — Nelida could finish high school in Savannah and work on weekends if she promised go work full-time after graduation and forget about college.
“I can get my diploma, but no college because I have to work and take care of my child,” Nelida said. She attempted to crack a smile. “I graduate this year.”
Shabnam Sikander, Afghanistan
Shabnam Sikander grew up in a Pakistani refugee camp. She was just 8 months old when her family fled Afghanistan with the clothes on their backs.
She remembers that her father was an Afghan soldier but she was too young to remember the Taliban’s subjugation of women. Nor does she recall the Taliban fighters who raided her home in search of weapons and the debilitating beating her father suffered at their hands.
Her earliest memories are all of hardship — her parents eking out a living as house cleaners; barely enough food for the family of eight to eat twice a day, escalating tension between Afghan refugees and Pakistanis and thieves stealing what little they had from their tent. Shabnam’s entire life — 17 years — was spent in a constant state of uncertainty in the refugee camp.
Then her father went to the only doctor he could afford to treat the poorly healed wounds the Taliban soldiers had inflicted years earlier. A botched surgery killed him. Desperate for help, and her own health deteriorating, her widowed mother took Shabnam and her five siblings to Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad for help. But their Pakistani hosts have grown increasingly hostile in recent years. Many Afghan refugees have suffered arrest, harassment, violence and limitations on educational and employment opportunities. Many are now being pressured to leave Pakistan.
“When they say that we were from Karachi (Afghanistan) they wouldn’t let us come back to the camp,” she said.
Just when all hope seemed lost, the U.S. granted them amnesty six months ago.
Shabnam is able to go to high school full time every day and she hopes to continue her studies after graduation.
“I want to go to college,” she said. “I want to be a doctor so I can do better operations. I don’t want what happened to my father to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Caio Faria, Brazil
Caio Faria is a soccer phenom. The athletic teen honed his fancy footwork and dribbling skills when he played in Brazil. He is a positive, hardworking, fast learning student with dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. Any coach would love to have Caio on his team; almost.
“In Brazil I played at school and for a soccer club,” he said. But I haven’t been able to play here.”
All of Savannah-Chatham’s ESOL high school students have to take their classes at Groves, where the ESOL program is housed. But they’re officially enrolled at their neighborhood high schools. That means if they want to play sports they have to play for their neighborhood high school teams and they have to provide their own transportation to practice. In Caio’s case he would have had to get someone to pick him up from Groves at 2:30 p.m. and drive him to Bloomingdale in time for New Hampstead High soccer practice after school.
The vast majority of the ESOL students have parents who work or don’t have reliable transportation, which makes high school soccer an impossibility.
“It is a shame since the national game of the majority of our students is soccer,” said ESOL Teacher Magda Kahn.
But Caio got lucky. This summer his family moved to the Groves High attendance zone. Because Groves is now his official home school he can try out for soccer this fall.
Gabriel Torres, Mexico
Gabriel Torres has a tremendous appreciation for Independence Day. His family in Tabasco, Mexico, was convinced that his estranged father had paid drug dealers to kill his mother after a bad breakup. The presence of drug gangs in the Gulf Coast State of Tabasco has increased in recent years as U.S. officials have cracked down on trafficking by boat across the gulf. Some of Mexico’s most notorious cartels now operate there.
After years of living in fear that his mother would be attacked, a series of unexplained accidents prompted them to flee.
They paid a coyote to sneak them across the border to Texas. It is a treacherous trail where drug dealers and opportunists rob and extort money from desperate immigrants. “If we got caught by immigration they’d put my mother in jail and if we got caught by drug dealers they would make us work for them.”
Last year his family put all of their money together to pay a man to help them across the Rio Grande. But it was far from a luxury cruise. They had to hide out in a safe house for a month with the other immigrants hoping to sneak across illegally.
“They treated us really bad. We had no food and what they gave you they threw at you like you were a dog. It was the most terrible month of my life. You couldn’t talk. You just stayed in the room waiting for them to tell you when it was a safe time to cross. They were at the mercy of the coyote who told them he had to have more money to pay off drug dealers and border police.
“When the day finally came that the way would be clear for us to cross I was 16 and it was July 4, 2015. Someone turned on the news and I heard the broadcaster say border security was going to be stricter because of a fear of terrorist attacks. They told us we had to go. It was the middle of the day, the river was swift but they said we had to go right now.
“It was like a miracle,” he said. “Everyone got caught but us. We were the only ones who made it.”
Their guide took them to a house in Texas where they waited another month before making their way to Georgia.
“It is better here because we are safe,” he said. “I’m scared to go back to Mexico.”
Luis Antonio, Cuba
Luis Antonio and his mother were given amnesty from Cuba on March 10. He was in the U.S. when President Barack Obama, the first sitting U.S. President to visit since the revolution in 1959, called for Cubans to push for a more diplomatic future.
“Thank you Obama for going there,” he said. “There is a big change coming in my country.”
For decades Cubans had to wait nearly a decade to go through the wrangling to come to the U.S. legally. Many snuck over by boat.
But six months ago Luis was one of the lucky few Cubans granted asylum.
Although the teenager was born 40 years after Castro’s Revolution, his family was targeted for reprisals because his father was imprisoned for 20 years for opposing socialism. Luis’ mother eventually split from his father but the ostracism didn’t end for them.
His father remarried and was granted asylum in the U.S., but he was only allowed to take his new family. Louis and his mother were left behind to endure their troubles. But the Lutheran Church intervened and Louis and his family were allowed to come to the U.S. in March.
“It is a country filled with opportunity and freedom I never had,” he said. “I like school and I would love to go to college. I’m not sure if I have the capability.”
Gaspar Sanchez, Guatemala
Gaspar was just 16 when he made the long journey from Guatemala to the U.S. on his own. Life had become unbearable in his tiny village, one of Guatemala’s poorest and most isolated communities.
Gaspar is an Ixil, descendants of Mayans who have their own language and eke out a living as subsistence farmers in remote mountain regions.
In the 1980s Guatemala’s military dictator massacred more than 80,000 Ixil, believing it would prevent a guerilla movement in the rural regions. In the end about 90 percent of Ixil villages and farms were destroyed. Those who survived the rape and torture fled to remote cloud forests in Guatemala’s northeast and high up in the inhospitable Cuchumatanes Mountains. Life is harsh in their tiny villages, where basic comforts like electricity and running water are rare.
Gaspar is quiet and soft spoken. He doesn’t say much about his difficult upbringing, although he briefly held out his right hand, exposing the thick yellow callouses covering the majority of his palm. He smiled shyly, as he pulled his hand back. His eyes revealed his embarrassment.
“I want to be a lawyer but I wasn’t allowed to study,” he said. “My family didn’t have money and I had to work the fields.”
When Gaspar’s brother — who had left in search of a better life years earlier — sent money from the U.S. Gaspar saved it. When he turned 16 he used it to buy a ticket out as well.
“I paid a coyote and took a truck. It cost $3,000. It looked like a tour bus. But we had nothing to eat. I was alone and I was afraid. Coyotes are mean. They have guns,” he said.
Migrants who take the treacherous route to the Texas border through territory where cartels fight for control of drug and human smuggling face abuse, kidnapping, and death long before they ever cross the Rio Grande Valley’s desert hear or its raging river waters. Hundreds of bodies turning up in unmarked graves in Mexico are believed to be migrants who were killed on the journey. In recent years young migrants, like Gaspar, have travelled up from Central America on their own. About 100,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed into the US since 2012.
Gaspar didn’t say much about what he saw and experienced on his journey, mainly because of the language barrier but partly to leave the bad memories behind. Sometimes as he recounted his story he paused and shook his head as if he were shaking it all off.
ESOL Teacher Magda Kahn said many of her students have witnessed atrocities and hardships they are reluctant to openly discuss.
“They don’t really tell you the whole story. Some see their experiences as embarrassing. They want to be regular teenagers,” Kahn said. “But you know some terrible things have happened. Many of them, like Gaspar, have great sadness in their faces.”
Gaspar said he crossed the Rio Grande into Texas by boat but was caught by immigration police.
“They took me to a building for two days — the immigration,” he said. “I was in jail for two days with a lot of people.”
Because of his young age Gaspar was taken to an immigrant youth camp in Seattle.
“All of the young people went there. I was there for 27 days,” he said.
They contacted his brother and he was sent to live with him in Savannah. Gaspar’s life is much better. He chops vegetables in a Chinese restaurant on the weekends and is enrolled in 11th grade classes at Groves on weekdays.
“I like school. Math the best,” he said with a smile. “I like to play with numbers.”
But his newfound stability and educational opportunity is not guaranteed.
“I want to go to college but I don’t know if I can,” he said.
His brother is going back to Guatemala next year, and Gaspar fears that he will have to skip his senior year and work to support himself.
“I will be alone,” he said. I’m not sure if I can stay in school.”