Opportunity in diversity

When Younis Al Barmaki arrived in America with his family from Yemen in 2014, he spoke no English. Now, the 16-year-old sophomore at Hamtramck High School is a straight-A student who also works after school. His goal: To go to college and become an engineer.

Photos by Bruce Unwin. Story by Jessica Page-Carreras.

Hamtramck High School student Younis Al Barmaki 's goal is to become an engineer.

Hamtramck High School student Younis Al Barmaki ‘s goal is to become an engineer.

Younis Al Barmaki started high school not knowing a word of English. Every day, he studies to master his coursework in a language that he didn’t speak for the first 14 years of his life. The 16-year-old sophomore at Hamtramck High School hasn’t lettered in any sports and doesn’t participate in extracurricular activities. Instead, he works every day after school at Hamtramck’s Yemen Café – owned by his cousin – then spends two hours on homework before going to bed to start all over again the next school day.

His story may sound extraordinary for an American teenager, but it’s typical of students in Hamtramck.

More than half of the students at Hamtramck High School were born outside of America. An even greater number speak a language other than English at home. On top of that, Hamtramck has the highest percentage of children living in poverty in any school district in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Any of these factors alone could create a substantial barrier to education for students. Put together in one school district, they make the task of not only graduating Hamtramck students, but also equipping them with necessary cultural and language skills, sound insurmountable.

But Hamtramck High, a GM Network of Excellence school within United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s High School Turnaround initiative, has seen four-year graduation rates rise from 65 percent in 2011 to 86 percent in 2015. And, nearly as important, school officials say the culture has improved. Students value their school’s diversity and the advantage it will give them in life.

“A Miniature United Nations”

Walking the halls of Hamtramck High School, you’ll see students dressed like typical American teenagers next to young ladies in full burqas. You’ll hear more than a dozen different languages spoken, including Arabic, Bengali, Ukrainian, Spanish and English. And you’ll often see students not only navigating their first day in a new school, but in a new country.

“Hamtramck High School is extremely unique,” says United Way for Southeastern Michigan High School Liaison Caleb Boswell, who works to coordinate United Way partners within the school. “It’s like a miniature United Nations.”

However, their diversity, while celebrated by school leaders and students, also creates a strain on the school.

“You have students who are from all over the world, and Hamtramck High has this unique challenge,” Caleb explains. “They have a huge population where English is their second language, and they’re getting students who just got their visa; just got to the States.

“But the school handles that very well,” he adds.

The Joint Effort to Success

It takes a coordinated effort to help students do well at Hamtramck High – from the school and students, and United Way and its partners.

The school works hard to teach students English while moving them through their coursework: it has special classes for learning English, and many of the teachers and support staff speak several languages.

Younis, who excels at math and hopes to work as an engineer in the auto industry, says his favorite teachers are the ones who taught him English, because they pushed him the most to succeed.

“[My ninth grade English teacher] Ms. Lala helped me out a lot,” he says. “When I came here, every week, she’d give me a book and tell me to study.”

United Way and its partners help fill in the gaps, providing resources to help students apply for college and financial aid, gain literacy and SAT/ACT training, and help with learning English.

All of this is possible thanks to a $27.1-million grant from GM that paved the way for the GM Network of Excellence – a cohort of seven schools that are part of United Way’s High School Turnaround Initiative, with the goal of raising graduating rates above 80 percent while addressing any other issues the school may be facing.

“There are programs at Hamtramck that deal with behavior modification, mentoring (and) academic tutoring,” Caleb explains. “We offer programming that will improve the school culture overall. A better school culture leads to better students, which leads to better graduation rates.

“We’re taking a holistic approach in regard to improving the school culture.”

Partners like ACCESS are active within Hamtramck High, helping students learn language and cultural skills, as well as relating to them as fellow immigrants. Qanita Ali, the site leader at the ACCESS Success Center at Hamtramck High, emigrated from Iraq to Dearborn with her family and believes it helps in her work with students.

“I can say that I’ve gone through something similar to your experience,” she says. “The way your family struggles is the way my family continues to struggle.”

Younis Al Barmaki and Qanita Ali from ACCESS have a conversation in the halls of Hamtramck High School.

Younis Al Barmaki and Qanita Ali from ACCESS have a conversation in the halls of Hamtramck High School.

Being a United Way for Southeastern Michigan Turnaround High School, Principal Terrence George says, “has provided Hamtramck High School with a lot of things that we could not have otherwise afforded.” This includes connecting students with field trip and mentoring opportunities to help them see all the possibilities the future could hold for them.

Hamtramck is a city filled with hard-working families – with both parents and sometimes teens working to pay household expenses. But many parents of students at Hamtramck High didn’t go to college, and don’t have work experience in an office or professional setting. That’s why United Way’s mentorship program with corporate partners provides such important interactions for students, Terrence explains.

“One of the things very few of our parents can give kids is the sense of what it’s like to be a professional in the United States,” he says. “They’ve never applied to college, so they can’t give that type of advice; very few of our parents wear a suit and tie to work. So one of the biggest benefits of those types of partnerships and those interactions is … to actually see it and taste it and feel it.”

Driven to Succeed

But all of this wouldn’t mean much without a commitment from the students. Terrence gives them a lot of credit, saying he’s always impressed by teens willing to help translate for someone who is still learning English, and by students like Younis, who are determined to do well in school.

Though he was always gifted at math, Younis knew he had to learn English to graduate and study engineering in the University of Michigan-Dearborn in a few years.

“With math, you do not need English,” he explains. “If you know it from back home, you can do it here. But if you don’t know English, you’re going to face difficulty.”

United Way partners like ACCESS work within Turnaround High Schools like Hamtramck High to raise graduation rates and address school issues.

United Way partners like ACCESS work within Turnaround High Schools like Hamtramck High to raise graduation rates and address school issues.

Qanita says that she believes the drive Younis and other students have is, in part, because immigrant families know what it’s like to face challenges.

“With immigrant families, there’s a high motivation because they’ve come so far,” she explains. “Something like a college application or high school course is not as difficult as changing your entire life situation.”

Younis knows he has to work hard in school and at his job so that he can save for college and, hopefully, land a scholarship. Terrence says that level of drive is typical for students at his school. Many of them work jobs to save for college and even support their families.

“Our kids and their parents are not afraid of hard work,” he says. “What trumps everything is that sense of ‘I’m lucky to be here, and my family came here for us to make a life.’ It’s a much bigger thing than just going to math class.”

A Model for the World

While Younis works to get his scholarship so that he can study to become an engineer, Terrence sees bigger benefits to the diversity his students experience, and the struggles that they overcome as immigrants.

Across the world, conflicts are spurned from differences of religion and culture. In America, the political climate has become increasingly hostile toward immigrants. But in Hamtramck, being an immigrant and experiencing different cultures is a point of pride.

“Materially, a lot of our kids are poor,” Terrence says. “But culturally, they’re not. They have a strong family network. They have a strong sense of identity. They have a strong sense of community.”

Staff at Hamtramck High School, like Principal Terrence George, are committed to helping students succeed.

Staff at Hamtramck High School, like Principal Terrence George, are committed to helping students succeed.

He says that when he talks about Hamtramck High’s diversity, he’s so proud that he tends to get carried away. But he’s not apologizing for his enthusiasm – he just wishes more people could see it.

“I wish the world could be so much more like us, because I think we’re so far beyond just about any community out there,” he says. “Our kids are the ones that are going to break those stereotypes.”

“Someday,” he says, “I hope the world will look like Hamtramck High.”