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Love: A universal language


Many Yemeni women from OIHS--Oakland International High School--feel caught in a cultural dilemma: they come from a place where dating is prohibited and education is seen as secondary to having a family. But they’re going to an American high school, where female empowerment and yes, dating, are commonplace. So, what’s a girl to do? Here's the story from OIHS about a real life Romeo and Juliet.

It is May 1st -- May Day -- on the campus of Oakland International High School. Many of the students have painted their faces with the flag of their home countries. But even though they come from different places, they’ve made a collective home here at OIHS. It’s like a mini United Nations.


Bilane is a senior at OIHS. She came from Ethiopia two and a half years ago. “Here there is a lot of language differences and color and culture and religion, everything!” Now, she’s sharing her lunch with two new Eritrean students on a shaded bench under a tree in the courtyard.

Getting an education is a big deal for Bilane. When she first got here, she felt so inadequate she thought she should just give up and clean houses. Now she’s planning to go to nursing school. “My senior research project was on birth control, which birth control do you recommend for teenagers? I found out that hormonal implant was a good recommendation for teenagers.”

Back in Ethiopia Bilane had been told that birth control makes women permanently infertile. She knew other young women at the school had similar misconceptions, and she wanted to share what birth control really was. Especially because she knows that girls on the campus are dating, and some are having sex. Shahrzad Makaremi is the Community School Capacity Builder at OIHS. “Yeah it’s a big issue. In terms of how to be safe and how to protect themselves and how to get the information to students.”

Just this year there are 8 students who are pregnant or who’ve had children. She says that;s often the result of differing cultural mores. “I think that most of the Yemeni girls who have graduated from this school have been married, either when they are still here or within the first or second year that they graduate. Last year we had two seniors who were already married. One was pregnant. She gave birth during school.”

Out of the almost 400 students at OIHS, 35 are Yemeni. Yemen is a predominantly Muslim country: young women aren’t allowed to date and marriages are often arranged. Makaremi says that like any public high school in Oakland, OIHS has sexual education classes. But that doesn’t mean that everyone takes them. “A lot of times our Yemeni Girls will opt out. Their families are like no you can’t, we aren’t going to talk about this. Even Yemeni boys will opt out.”

Samar is a junior at OIHS. We’re using a pseudonym, for reasons that will become clear. She’s one of the Yemeni girls Makaremi is talking about. “My dad he get mad at me and said you aren’t allowed to study about that, because you are a girl. And I was like oh okay, but we’ve got to know he sent my teacher a message saying that I should not study about it. It’s not allowed.”

She says neither of her parents have talked to her about the birds and the bees. “My mom, she doesn’t talk about anything to the girls. Even when the kids ask her, how do you birth your children? How does it come? She’s like “oh from the stomach!” How from the stomach? They want to know!”

There’s a reason Samar is so curious about all this stuff. “I fall in love with a person, he’s from Yemen, and also I’m from Yemen. He’s muslim,” she says. Even though she’s dating a young Muslim man from her own country--and even though their relationship is chaste--just having a boyfriend is forbidden in her family. When her brother and sister went through her phone and found out she was texting with a boy, they were outraged. “My brother he was so mad. He was angry. He was saying ‘It’s better you die. I don’t want to see you.’ It was so painful. It hurt my feelings. I tried a lot of things to do something bad to me, I tried to kill myself.”

Samar says she is no longer suicidal. “I wish that I could go somewhere. Just myself. Think about it. And don’t come back to my home. Just start a new life by myself, without anyone.”

Part of the reason she want’s to escape is because Samar lives with the fear that her siblings will tell her father she’s dating. She says, “My dad, he will get mad at me and send me back to my country. My brother told me that if he has a chance, he will send me back to my country. But right now it is in the war.”

Yemen is in the midst of a violent regional and factional war. And the violence there makes it less likely that her father will send her back. But she is still playing the lead in a very real version of Romeo and Juliet. Her older brother has threatened to marry her off to the first man to show interest. “He said ‘if anyone comes and says I want to get married from your sister, I am going to say yes.’ I want to finish my education. I want to be a counselor or a lawyer.”

Going to school in America, with young people from different cultures, has taught Samar that education is the most important thing. And now, she wants be fully independent, and to help other Yemeni girls become empowered too. “A lot of girls didn’t finish their education, also they aren’t allowed to go outside, or do not work, or do not have a car. I feel like a lot of girls they don’t have their rights. They love and they get hurt. I love to help anyone who is poor, who need help with their homework. I like to support them. I will support the other students or the other people who need help, or who get hurt, or who doesn’t have their rights.”

Samar and her boyfriend have stopped talking until things tide over, but that doesn’t mean they have broken up. “He talked to his parents, that he wants to get married from me. His mom tells him that he is too young. But when he finishes his school, maybe we will get engaged. I really love him. He’s over there.” She points across the school’s courtyard to a tall and handsome boy who has been eying us from a distance. She is quiet for a bit as she watches him longingly. “I miss him!” she says. “When we are in the class we are bothering each other and saying some stuff, that’s why I miss him. I really miss him.”

But there’s only so much affection she’s allowed to show him. Samar tells me that in her culture you must only love in the “correct” way.” The “correct way” doesn’t involve flirting, or first kisses. It is a far cry from the way high school love happens in this country. Instead: “If he really loves you, you should not make relationship with him. If he does he should come to your parents first and say, ‘I want to get married from your daughter.’ But if you text him and you are doing other stuff, it’s not allowed. It’s forbidden.”

The problem is, even at an international school like OIHS, she’s still at an American School, immersed in a culture where young love is the norm. And she’s stuck, between an American culture that elevates young love to the stuff of myth, and her own family, which sees her falling in love as the deepest defiance. Still, she says, all this new knowledge about freedom has taken a harsh toll. “I don’t want to grow more. I don’t want to see all the world. I don’t want to have experience about difficult things. I want to go back to when I was little.”

There’s a clear contradiction here. Samar says she wants to go back to when she was a child, but back then she was in Yemen: a place where she didn’t have the chance to pursue her education. She says she doesn’t want to see the world, but as a student at OIHS, she’s been exposed to multiple worlds. And she’s fallen in love--not just with a boy, but with her new found opportunities in the US. “I love it more than my country, because here there is more freedom. You can go wherever you want. In our country you stay at home. The boys can go outside and play and do whatever they want. Here girls can have a car, can go anywhere, can go to the party, work.”

And she wants all of that--to live and love as an independent woman. But right now, what she really wants is to go on a date with her boyfriend.