By MOLLY BECK (email@example.com)
The State Journal-Register
Eighteen-year-old Simret Habtes is planning to go to college and study to become a medical doctor. Her younger brother, Kibrom Habtes, 17, will study computer science. And Kiflom Habtes, 15, wants to build a career around physics. But first, the three must learn how to spell the word “pan.”
Without knowing a lick of English, the three, along with their mother, Adhanet, and two younger brothers, Tesfamichel, 13, and Amuneal, 11, moved to Chatham in July from the East African nation of Eritrea.
The Habtes family is the newest — but not only — Eritrean-born family to enroll in the Ball-Chatham School District — with students at the high school, middle school and intermediate school. And as school officials are finding out, the new students also are providing a lesson in diversity.
From there to here
Simret scoots toward her little brother, Kiflom, and points to the empty space where he is supposed to be writing down the words that their teacher, Pam Barris, is rattling off.
Simret clearly is used to mothering her younger brothers.
“She obeys, though, when we tell her that she must let them work on their own,” Barris said. “But it’s obvious her instinct is to mother them.”
It’s second nature for Simret not just because she’s the oldest in her family and the only daughter, but because her family has been living with only one parent for the past decade. The children’s father, Tesfazion, was severely injured during civil war conflict as a member of the Eritrea military, fighting Ethiopia for independence. Eritrea, a country of about 6 million people in northeast Africa, is bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea.
While fighting for Britrea’s independence, Tesfazion was shot in the head in the early 1990s, and a few years later went to live with his brother in the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to have access to American medical care, as the injury left him disabled.
While he left his family 10 years ago, Tesfazion worked with another brother, Fee Habtes, to bring his wife and five children to the United States. Tesfazion is expected to move to Chatham to reunite with them in about a month.
Fee Habtes formerly worked at the Illinois Department of Public Health, but now commutes from Selma, Ala., after taking a job as executive vice president of Concordia College. Fee Habtes lives in Springfield with his wife and son, a senior at Glenwood High School, and has two daughters in college. The family, which has lived here since the 1980s, spurred Tesfazion’s interest in moving his own family here.
The process was involved: Tesfazion’s family moved to Sudan and then Kenya for three years to progress through the immigration process. During that time, the children did not attend school.
Fee Habtes then adopted his brother’s five children, who now have green cards and are U.S. residents. Tesfazion’s children and his wife moved in with Habtes and his wife, Nardos, and their three children, living there until just recently.
“We were so happy to see them,” Nardos said about her nieces and nephews.
Now, Adhanet and her children live in an apartment near Trevi Gardens, which she pays for by working as a housekeeper at Springfield’s Crowne Plaza.
Nardos, who emigrated from Eritrea to the U.S. like Adhanet, said the attraction of Springfield is its opportunities in education, but also that most of the Habtes family now lives here. Fee and Tesfazion Habtes’ cousin, Isaac Okbamichael, also lives in Springfield, and attended college here after learning of Fee’s success.
The acclimation to Springfield was not difficult, Nardos and Isaac said, but not one that could be described as easy, either. Nardos, who first lived in Minneapolis before moving to Springfield with her husband, said one of the first things she noticed was few people would talk to her.
“The social life at home is much better,” said Isaac, who is 40. “But here is an opportunity.”
Adjusting to a new life
If Pam Barris had business cards, her title would read intervention coordinator. She is charged with providing intervention for students at risk of slipping off a path to success at Glenwood High School.
A support system is what she really is, though.
“I love you Mrs. Berres,” reads a text message from Simret to Barris sent on Monday night. Barris had reminded Simret and her two siblings that Tuesday was Wacky Tacky Tuesday at Glenwood to celebrate spirit week, the week before the school’s homecoming football game and dance.
Barris does everything she can to help the Habtes children acclimate to American high school life — but as typical teenagers, Simret and Kibrom decided not to make spectacles out of themselves and dress normally. But Kiflom would, Simret texted back. And on Tuesday, the lanky 15-year-old came to school sporting a men’s plaid sportcoat, a Cubs ballcap and his socks pulled up a bit too high.
The three Habtes children largely blend in at the school. Their clothes are trendy, they’re attractive and they’re good students.
“I am astonished at their progress,” Barris said. “When they got here, they didn’t know any English at all, and now they can speak to me in sentences.”
The students at Glenwood are welcoming, as well. During Algebra class, other students are polite, help the Habtes children with words they don’t understand and generally treat them as any other student.
“I think it’s just the nature of our kids,” said associate principal Chris Becker. “If they see someone struggling or needing help, they try to lend a hand; that’s more important than any of the academics — trying to help others succeed.”’
Simret said the students are nice to her, and she loves the school — and being in the United States.
“I think they feel more comfortable. They say the kids are very nice and helpful, but they still sit by themselves at lunch,” Barris said, citing the language barrier as an issue. Simret agreed — she hasn’t made many friends yet.
Fee Habtes contacted Becker in August, just before school registration, about enrolling Habtes’ non-English-speaking niece and nephews.
Becker said all five students were given an English Learning Language battery of tests, and each tested in the basic category, as expected with most students who do not know English.
“But they tried so hard,” Barris said. “They wrote sentences like ‘Eritrea is by the Red Sea,’ or ‘I am a boy.’ ”
The district enrolled them in grades that were age-appropriate, and the high-school-age siblings were placed in some classes together in order to aid translation issues.
Becker said he left the grading up to each teacher, with many deciding to work on a Pass/Fail program.
Stephanie Hagan teaches Algebra to Simret, Kibrom and Kiflom. She said they’re all earning As, though their curriculum is a bit different from other students’.
“They do really well when we’re just doing computation, but when they do word problems, it’s another story — with piggy bank problems, they just learned ‘The Three Little Pigs’ — why would we put money in it?”
‘Glowing’ with opportunity
Daniel Habtes spirals a football toward his cousins Kiflom, Tesfamichel and Amuneal behind their apartment building. Little Amuneal jumps but misses, while Kiflom snatches it and throws it back a bit wobbly.
Daniel, who was born in Springfield, said he showed his cousins around when they arrived — but left them alone once they got the hang of it. Now, he’s teaching them football and talked them into coming to Friday’s football game.
The five Habtes children are pretty happy here, and might even try out for Glenwood’s soccer team. The school would be lucky to have them if their scrimmages during P.E. are any indication of their ability. Simret plays the part she’s used to even in P.E., as she is the only girl in the game, yet is better than most on the field.
The only thing they can’t get used to is American students’ attitudes during school.
“(During the first week) they came home and said a student made a teacher cry,” Nardos said. “And they couldn’t believe that people would treat teachers like that. In Eritrea, teachers are respected. You don’t look at them in the eye.”
Barris and Becker noticed that attitude immediately.
“They just love the school — they respect the school,” Becker said. “These kids have been through a lot, and they just feel like this is such a great opportunity. They walk down the halls, and they are just glowing.”