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Students of the world

For the first few minutes of her last class of the day at Red River High School, Shahad Ahmed huddled with Ivona Todorovic to learn about the ancient civilizations of Central and South America.

Shahad Ahmed
Shahad Ahmed, from Iraq, works on a math problem during an after-school tutorial class taught by Ivona Todorovic at Red River High School in Grand Forks. Herald photo by John Stennes.

For the first few minutes of her last class of the day at Red River High School, Shahad Ahmed huddled with Ivona Todorovic to learn about the ancient civilizations of Central and South America.

Why did those people live close together, in cities? Todorovic asked.

"To help each other," Ahmed said.

This is Social Studies in 2010: a student recently arrived from Iraq and a teacher originally from Bosnia, their heads together in a Grand Forks public school, examining and discussing -- in English -- the trials and achievements of Incas, Aztecs and Mayans.

Later in the hour, Ahmed moves on to advanced algebra, listening intently as Wesley Mosher, a UND Honors Program student and volunteer tutor, walks her through a maze of numbers, lines and representational letters, graphing inequalities.


"No, that's a negative 2," Mosher says, and Ahmed smiles, seeing the light as she makes the correction in her notebook.

As growing numbers of international refugees settle in Grand Forks, about 160 children from Africa, Asia, the Middle East -- the world -- are beginning or continuing their education in the city's schools.

Red River, where Todorovic is the English Language Learner teacher, is the designated magnet for older students. South Middle School and Century Elementary also are magnets, where other specially trained teachers help students with limited English language skills grapple with biology, chemistry, English grammar and the graphing of mathematical inequalities.

"It's a challenge, a significant impact on our budget because the state provides very little support for ELL," said Jody Thompson, the district's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

The program costs the district about $350,000 a year, Thompson said, with the state providing about $35,000.

"But when you go to Century and see kids from different countries and cultures stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance together, you know it's having an impact," he said. "It's one of my favorite programs."

A place to learn, a place to feel safe

Todorovic's "tutorial" class at the end of the school day is like a study hall, at times boisterous and free-wheeling, at times an intense and determined pursuit of understanding.


This day, Yadhav Sanjel, 16, from Nepal, reviews algebra lessons with Adrian Swenson, 17, a UND freshman Honors Program student from Lakota, N.D. At the same table, strewn with books and backpacks, Krishna Bhetwal, 19, also from Nepal, and Khadija Ismail, 17, from Somalia, study with Beatrice Hill, 19, a second-year UND honors student from West Fargo, N.D.

"This is a comfort zone here," Todorovic said. "They feel safe here. We try to encourage them to get out in the community more, to interact with native speakers and improve their English, but this is an important part of their social life, too. They have friends here who have gone through what they went through.

"If they get lost at this age, they can be lost forever."

'Lucky to be here'

Todorovic grew up in a Bosnian city of about 150,000 people close to Sarajevo, capital of that province of the former Yugoslavia. She attended school in Sarajevo and returned to her hometown as a teacher.

Then came the terrible ethnic and religious wars of the early 1990s.

"I didn't want to leave my home," she said. "I didn't want to leave my kids, the kids I was teaching. I knew I was born to be a teacher.

"But when the fighting started, it was tough to live. We had to sell things out of our house to get food. They made you pick sides, our lives were in danger, and you just wanted to be a human being, to be productive."


She fled to neighboring Croatia. When her husband joined her there, they obtained permission to come to the United States, arriving in June 1995. Her teaching credentials from Bosnia wouldn't qualify her here, so she started over -- earning a bachelor's degree in education from UND and, while working at Phoenix Elementary, a master's degree.

Along the way, she became a U.S. citizen.

"I love my culture, my nationality," she said. "I still have friends there -- Muslim friends, Catholic friends -- and I love them all to death.

"But I think I was lucky to end up here. It's an awesome place, Grand Forks. People are kind. People are warm. And I think this is the greatest country in the world because of the values it defends and because here you can be anything you want to be if you have passion and dedication and you work hard."

She glanced at the students bent over their maps, graphs and texts.

"That's what I tell them," she said. "The gap can be big in high school, getting them caught up with their peers in age -- in academic language, especially. But they're wonderful kids, and with time and patience and a lot of work, they will succeed and be productive.

"They know I can relate to them. 'She walked in our shoes,' they say. 'She knows how it feels.' And so we become everything to them -- an extra ear, a mother or a father, sometimes a nurse, sometimes a banker."

Ione Seidlinger, a paraprofessional in the ELL program at Red River, sometimes gives students a ride home after school. One day, she had to stop at her bank, and a student discovered that the bank always has fresh cookies on hand.


"I was giving him another ride and he said we should stop at the bank for a cookie," she said. "I said I didn't have any money to deposit. He said he had $5 that I could deposit, we get a cookie -- and then next time we could take the $5 out and get another cookie."

Call it Econ 101.

'All about justice'

Many of the ELL students have been through incredible loss and hardship, and for some the distracting difficulties continue.

Shahad, the young woman from Iraq, came to the United States a year ago with her parents "because there is safety here," but her family is scattered: a brother in Syria, two sisters in Saudi Arabia, unable so far to gain entry to the United States.

Shahad said her parents may decide to leave Grand Forks and reunite the family in Saudi Arabia.

She considered herself a writer in Iraq, always writing stories and poems in Arabic, "but when I came to America, I didn't do that anymore because I want to learn English," she said, speaking in an easy conversational way remarkable for how far it has come in just a year.

She would like to graduate, go to college and become a lawyer, she said, smiling as her teacher nodded. "She would be a good lawyer," Todorovic said. "She's all about justice."


But she could not be a lawyer in Saudi Arabia, Shahad said, because of custom and convention in that country. So, she may study to be a pharmacist instead. "I want to do something, wherever I go," she said.

Hinda Hassan, 18, from Somalia, had never been to school until she arrived in Grand Forks two years ago. Her parents had been killed in Somalia. She was illiterate, unable to read or write her own language. Now, she is rapidly learning to speak, read and write in English, and she gives credit to Todorovic.

"She is a great teacher," Hinda said.

She also gets help in math from Wei Lin, 17, who came with his parents from China five years ago seeking better educational and work opportunities.

"It's very tough at first because everything is new," Wei Lin said. "The language is new, the culture is new. You have to make new friends."

A junior now at Red River, he is in advanced placement classes and volunteers with Todorovic as a class aide.

"When he first came to my class, he didn't know one word of English," Todorovic said. "Now, he comes to help the others. He and Hinda have become great friends."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .


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