The Al-Shammari family was welcomed to the U.S. by the JFS resettlement team on January 26, 2016. Shortly after arriving,14-year-old Ali and 15-year-old Maryam, enrolled in the Kent School District. These refugee children were beginning their careers as American students.
The Al-Shammaris, a family of five, were forced to flee Iraq in 2014. As a “mixed” Sunni-Shia marriage, sectarian violence became an increasing threat to them following the drawdown of American troops in 2012.
After leaving Baghdad, they spent two years in Turkey. They were in a holding pattern as the American State Department conducted its extensive review of their situation and qualifications before allowing them to gain entry to the U.S.
During this time, Ali and Maryam worked to provide the majority of the family’s income. While Turkish law does not allow refugees to be employed, the prohibition is largely ignored if the workers are refugee children. Ali worked in a coffee shop, while his sister washed restaurant dishes and sold corn and potatoes. Instead of going to school, the children spent their days helping to provide subsistence wages for the family to make ends meet.
The Kent School District is one of the most diverse in the state and is well-versed in integrating students from around the globe. The District’s Refugee Services Liaison Sahar Al Taie worked with Saba Al Tameemi, the JFS Refugee Self-Sufficiency Coordinator, to help the family prepare for the first days of school in their new country.
They made sure the children were paired with a student in their apartment complex who could help them navigate the bus. Additionally, the District and JFS coordinated to make the appropriate English Language Learner arrangements and helped the kids get set up with laptops, lockers and reduced-price breakfast and lunch.
Dheyaa Al-Shammari, the children’s father, expressed his thoughts as he watched his son start middle school and his daughter begin high school. “I’m very excited for my children to have the opportunity for education and the chance to build a life in this country.” His sentiments could have been those of any parent in America.
Photos by Jenelle Birnbaum