Helping Muslim refugee children to adapt to a new life while maintaining cultural identity


Arizona Sonora News

Besan Adnan, 9, teaches her mother, Ibtihaj Al-Na’san, English. Besan goes to public school where she learns English while also attend Sunday school to fortify her religion and Arabic language. (Photo by Nour Haki / Arizona Sonora News)

Eight months ago, Besan Adnan, nine years old, a Syrian refugee from Jordan to the United States encountered a world of different people, a different language, different lifestyles.

The school system and teaching methods were also different — until she enrolled at the Al-Rahman Sunday School where she felt her identity reaffirmed in a new life.

Al-Rahman Sunday school is a mosque affiliated school with the Muslim Community Center (MCCT) on N. Kevy Place and Roller Coaster Rd. in Tucson. In the school, students — while they are working to improve their English skills — meet every Sunday, tos study Islamic histor and Arabic.

“It is a really great opportunity for the Muslim community in America to offer schools that assist in maintaining the culture, religion and language for its young members,” said Ibtihaj Al-Na’san, a recent Syrian refugee and mother of Adnan, said in Arabic.

“Sunday school now is part of my weekly routine to meet my friends, teacher while also learning new stuff about my religion,” said Adnan, a Muslim Syrian child.

Besan and her family struggled to get out of Syria. They had to walk hundreds of miles to cross from their city, Daraa, in southwestern Syria, to the Jordan border. They had to illegally cross the Jordanian border due, which the Jordanians had closed on Syrians. “

We had no other choice, either to die in Syria with our kids or take that risk,” said Al-Na’san.

Escaping the war in Syria, Besan’s family came to the United States from Jordan through the help of International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Practicing Islamic religion

Some Muslim families living in the West expressed fear that their children could forget their roots.  Many American Muslims try to bridge the gap.

Besides Al-Rahman Sunday school,  Al-Huda international school, affiliated with Islamic Center of Tucson mosque, is also aiming to help Muslim kids to preserve their religious roots while strengthening their identity as newly arrived Muslims in America.

Al-Huda International School and Al-Rahman are private schools with more than 15 teachers who teach both the Arabic and English languages in addition to Islamic studies.

“Our goal is really to make sure that the Muslim students here in Tucson have a clear sense of identity and instilling the true teachings of Islam that focus on peace, cooperation, kindness, generosity towards one another and also off course building a closer relationship with God,” said Maha Nassar an Islamic history teacher at Al-Rahman.

In both schools students learn Islamic concepts such as reading Quran, conducting the five daily prayers, adhering to the yearly fast of Ramadan, and the importance of charity.

The students attending the schools are between the ages of five and 15. Although all of the students are Muslims, they come from different backgrounds. Some of them are born here; some of them have immigrant parents, and some are refugees themselves.

Refugee and learning English

Large numbers of refugees’children who have came recently from the conflict in Syria and elsewhere attend both schools.  “Those schools help to be a bridge between the world they know, Muslim Arab world, but also in America as well,” Nassar said.

The two schools provide students a safe opportunity to learn English and American culture without feeling like a foreigner or isolated as they might in other American public schools.

“Almost all of the students at the Al-Rahman school go to public schools during the week. A lot of their school experiences while varied most of them do find that they are either singled out for being Muslim or put on the spot and asked a lot of questions about what it means to be Muslims,” Nassar said.

“We really give them the tools they need to be able to answer those questions, be able to talk about and explain Islam in a way that it is comprehensible but also represent the values and morals that we seek to instill in them.”

Some of these children adjust to the American way of life more quickly than their parents who struggle with adjusting to aspects such as learning the language and how to interact with others. The children use what they learn in school to teach their parents and help make their adjustment easier on them. “I have learned to speak some English through my nine-year-old daughter who learned from school. She speaks English fluent enough to assist us with our daily needs such as grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments,” Al-Na’san said.

Importance of Arabic

Educ ators say that children tend to gain a new language and lose a language quickly. “Arabic shouldn’t be forgotten; it is our native language and we should not let our children who born here to forget their mother language instead they should preserve this language,” said Alaa Al-Sayfi, an Arabic teacher at Al-Huda school.

Besan Adnan, 9, with her father, Adnan Al-Na’san. (Photo by Nour Haki / Arizona Sonora News)

Beside religious purposes Arabic is crucial for Muslims to communicate and interact with families, not only in the United States but also in their home country. “The problem is most of the students [are] either new to United States or born here. Either way they learn English by connecting with people here,” Al-Sayfi said.

“Growng up in a Muslim world taught us to be rooted to our identity and be a united community no matter where we live at. We have to practice our religion and traditions — but the great part about all of that, Tucson do brings the same sense of what we used to feel back home and what our children need to learn,” Al-Na’san said.


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Born in Iraq, raised in America, Nour Haki is a journalism major. Curiosity is what drove her to journalism hoping to land a career in the fashion journalism field. Why Fashion? She has always been passionate about the creative aspect of it and the way it applies to herself personally, art and society.

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