Creating inclusive learning opportunities is inherently a community effort. No one group or person can successfully assimilate the complexities of different cultures from around the world into a single, positive method for educating youth. That’s why we at United Way of the Columbia-Willamette understand and implement a diversity focused lens in all the work we do; it makes us better when we can support the experts and highlight the experiences of those from a diverse array of backgrounds. Our work with the Iraqi Arabic School, spearheaded by our Early Learning Washington County team, celebrates this diversity with cogent, measurable and fun outcomes.
Early Learning Washington County and the Iraqi Arabic School had a successful summer of cohosting learning activities and events that has carried on into the fall and winter. They recently wrapped up an event where students were able to join in alongside science pros and experiment as Mad Scientists! They’ve also been able to host several STEM-learning focused events at OMSI, where the youth are able to get hands on with complex concepts and learn from the museum’s talented staff.
“I feel like we are lucky as an Arabic community here in Oregon to be able to get this support from Early Learning Washington County,” said Aras Dezay, a coordinator at the Iraqi Arabic School in Tigard, OR. “With their support, we’ve been able to help the Arabic community here, interfacing with them and getting them involved with the culture to help them overcome barriers.”
Aras, who immigrated here from Iraq after working with UNICEF for many years, is an expert in IT and has worked with mothers and children in the past. He has experience working with the age group the Iraqi Arabic School targets, knowing that many immigrant families worry about language barriers and communicating with their newfound neighbors. He knows that can prevent many families from integrating and getting involved with their community, so the Iraqi Arabic School works to promote community involvement and help families and kids overcome that language barrier before, during and after their involvement with the local school systems.
“Before they join school here, kids need to be prepared to get involved with this new knowledge,” Dezay said. “When they are asked questions about STEM, even simple questions like why does ice melt, a child will often go with fairy tales and little science. So we try and introduce this idea that it is science that explains these things, we fill that knowledge gap as early as we can so when they join school they don’t have to fill that gap themselves.”
In 2022, the Iraqi Arabic School began serving refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan, adding to the complexity and difficulty of their work.
“It’s a different culture, a different language, than we’re used to working with,” Dezay continued. “But we have the concept, the keys and tools to better handle this than most.”
With the support of an Afghan interpreter, the school has been able to get new families and youth involved.
“They have been so happy, so grateful,” Dezay said. “We plan to increase their presence in our school in the coming years.”
The Iraqi Arabic School served 50 youth in 2022 at their Tigard, OR location, down from 60 students in 2021. United Way of the Columbia-Willamette has been able to support that growth through its Early STEM Summer Camp programs. After eight years serving the Arabic diaspora, the Iraqi Arabic School has been able to build an impressive database of contacts for families in the region, allowing them to bring in youth of many age groups and backgrounds to their learning events, like those at OMSI, a Clean Water Summer Camp at Fernhill, the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals and the recent Mad Scientist event (all part of our Early STEM Summer Camp offerings). They were able to bring in over 300 kids last summer to their OMSI events, giving them the opportunity to learn about STEM and receive educational kits, books, toys and more from local sponsors.
“We feel as if we can give more to these children,” Dezay said. “More immigrants are coming, many are low income and it’s not easy for them to pay anything extra to add to their children’s education. That’s why we host our events and workshops, we can overcome that language and culture barrier and make it easier for the parents and their kids to interact.”
Aras does his work alongside many at the Iraqi Arabic School, including Eman Abbas. Eman is a Iraqi citizen who moved to Oregon in 2015, originally working with Portland Community College to help non-English speakers search for jobs, build their resumes and work on interviewing skills. She was far from confident in her English language skills though, and when she first arrived here was in need of help.
“When I moved to the U.S., I was looking everywhere for a food pantry, for help taking care of my kids while I was at work. I connected with a Facebook group for the Iraqi community here in Oregon, where families were sharing accessible resources,” Abbas said. “This motivated me to do more and more, my network kept growing bigger and bigger every day. I thought with my language skills this has been so hard to navigate, what if I had no English comprehension?”
These questions followed Eman throughout her work at Portland Community College, and she began finding more and more resources to share with families. She’s used these resources to augment the Iraqi Arabic School, as well as her computer and finance skills to help run the school’s accounting.
“At the end of the day, when we help people, we feel happy,” Dezay said, talking about his and Abbas’ work. “When we came here, getting insurance was a nightmare, dealing with police in the street could be the total of all fears in the world. But we learned how to get to know the system that was so foreign to us. Now we can share that with others.”
Eman and Aras, as well as the rest of the Iraqi Arabic School, have and will continue to have a positive impact on the learning outcomes of youth in our region. We are honored to be their partner. They hope to further expand their learning opportunities to provide a more robust tech-focused education in the future, and they are well positioned to provide it! They even have a teacher who joins them from Jordan to help teach the kids. This focus on expanding and highlighting cultural learning is core to the work we do.