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Getting to know your students through a neighborhood tour

Flickr user Brooke Anderson
The Oakland Islamic Center


It’s a bright spring afternoon in Oakland’s Northgate district, and a half dozen Yemeni-American students from Oakland International High School, or OIHS, are leading a group of their teachers and counselors on a tour of places they go when they’re not in school. Outfitted in brightly colored head scarves, they’re walking to one of their first stops: the Bee Healthy Honey shop on Telegraph Avenue.

Inside, the shop owner’s son, Omar, says honey is an important part of Arab cooking and is included in a lot of recipes. Kawakeb, a junior at OIHS, describes one of her favorites. “A bread, but inside the bread is oil, then we cook it in a oven, and then we put the honey in it and then we eat it.”

The group heads across the street to the Oakland Islamic Center – the largest mosque in the East Bay. They’re just in time for midday prayers.

They go in through the women’s entrance, where there are rows of shoes piled up in the small ground-floor foyer. Before going upstairs to join the other women and children, the first order of business is for the students to help the others prepare for wudu – the Muslim washing ritual that takes place before prayer. The students lead their teachers to the white and green tiled bathroom, where the barefoot women take off their hijabs. Two of the student guides, Fatima and Kawakeb, show the non-Muslims how to perform the ritual: first you wash your hands three times, then your face, then your mouth.

This scene is part of a typical Saturday for Fatima and Kawakeb and the other Yemeni students from OIHS. During the week, they rely on a phone app to keep them on track for the five daily prayers, but during the weekend, they visit the mosque, sometimes multiple times a day.

As the imam issues the call to prayer from the men’s section below, Kawakeb tells her teachers – some of whom have never been inside a mosque before – what to expect next. “First we have to pray – four times – before the imam starts to pray, and then when we finish, we sit, and when the imam starts to pray, we follow him.”

It is mid-afternoon when the prayer ceremony is done. The students are hungry and excited for the tour’s final stop: a feast at their classmate’s Belquis’ home in East Oakland. The young women and their teachers jam into the small second-floor apartment through the kitchen and the smell of coriander and cumin greet them. Belquis and her mother have prepared Yemeni food – homemade flatbreads, several varieties of stew, biryani, and aseed – a special savory porridge topped with gravy and yogurt.

In the privacy of the home, the girls remove their hijabs, and some of them trade their abayas for shorter skirts and sleeveless dresses. It’s as if they have transformed into more typical American teenagers. But they still aren’t completely Americanized -- everyone sits cross-legged on the floor in the living room to share the meal. As they eat, they trade Arabic words and phrases with their teachers.

Once they have finished eating, they take turns doing each other’s hair and makeup in the bedroom, just like any group of high school girls. And they start talking about their classes, and their futures. Asala, a high-spirited junior, says her favorite subjects are math and English. She wants to go to college, but first she hopes that she can go back to Yemen to see her mom and siblings. “Yeah, I'm thinking about college, but first if I graduate from high school I will go visit my country to see my mom, my sisters, and my other brother. And after that, get married! Yeah!”

Many of the students have close relatives who are still in Yemen, but Yemen is no longer a safe place: the country is being pulled apart by factional and regional wars. So it’s more important than ever for these young women to share their culture in a positive light.

“The teacher come to learn about our religion, how we were, what is the difference of the food,” Asala says. “They want to learn more about us.”

Salem Peterson is a biology teacher at Oakland International High School. Her students call her Ms. Salem. “One thing that’s so special about doing the Yemeni women’s walk is being in their homes and experiencing something with them very different than what we experience with them at school,” she says. “Doing something like the community walk is really helpful in reminding me really how stark the contrast is for our students – their home life, where they were coming from before they were here, and then what we’re expecting from them here in school.”

Peterson believes that teachers benefit by reaching out and and meeting their students where they live. “And it also just is so helpful in building relationships with our students," she adds.

Having strong mentors also helps the young women develop confidence and ambition. Kawakeb is a junior. She knows that coming to the U.S. has opened up new possibilities, like pursuing her education. Kawakeb already has a career path in mind. “I want to study law. I want to be a lawyer in the future,” she says.

As one of ten siblings, Kawakeb feels prepared to hold her ground in the courtroom. “I’m good at argue. Also, my parents say that I’m good at argue. And I like to help people, to fix problems. That’s my dream job.”

But to get to where she wants to go, she needs teachers who understand where she came from. And her teachers do that by taking a Saturday to walk in their students’ shoes.

This piece is part of a series of stories, "Waking up to the American Dream," created by student journalists at Mills College in Oakland. 

Crosscurrents Oakland