11 September

Tuition Aid: Meeting Melak: A Lifetime Of War, Peace And Hope

by Jon Katz

I’ve met close to 100 refugee students since I began working with the refugees more than three years ago,  Melak is one of the most impressive and charismatic refugee children that I have met.

Sometimes the stories of these children break my heart, sometimes they lift it. Melak’s story lifts it.

She is articulate, eloquent (she just learned English a few years ago), poised and intense. Her resilience, pride, and strength are powerful things to see and hear. She is uncomplaining and seeks no sympathy.

She means to go to college and intends to go to law school and become a government lawyer, perhaps working with refugees in some positive way.

Melak needs help to stay at Bishop Maginn High School, she has two more years to go, and she needs as much of the $4,000 a year tuition for those two years as she can raise.

Her story is extraordinary; she is a child of war and has found peace and safety after years of danger and fear. She relates the horrors of war and violence – she lived for years in the most dangerous places on the earth, crossing the most dangerous borders in the world – with dignity and calm.

“In Iraq, and then again in Syria,” she says, “we lived every day with fear in our hearts that something is going to happen. We just wanted to get out.”

When the bombs are starting falling so close to their house that the walls cracked, Melak’s family knew they had to flee the civil war in Syria, where they had lived for seven years after first fleeing the violence and bloodshed in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, where she was born.

Melak’s was the life of the refugee, and twice over; she and her family lost everything, twice. She says Bishop Maginn has brought her learning, friendship, and safety for the first time in her life.

Her mother is disabled and can’t work; her father works as a mechanic when he can. The family has no money for tuition.

(I am hoping to raise $8,000 over the next two years so that Melak, a junior at Bishop Maginn High School can remain there. In a way, the school has saved her. If you wish to help and can, please consider sending a tax-deductible tuition donation to Mike Tolan, Principal, Bishop Maginn High School, 75 Park Avenue, Albany, N.Y., 12202. I think it is essential that Melak stays in this school, for her sake, for all of our sakes, for our country’s sake. Let’s keep her where she is safe. She knows what it means to live in fear.)

“It is wonderful here for me at Bishop Maginn,” she said, “different from any other place I have been. No one makes fun of me or calls me names, the teachers are so kind, they have taken the time to teach me how to speak English well, and I have friends I love and can trust for the first time in my life.”

At Bishop Maginn, her teachers helped her learn English quickly and thoroughly, something her public school teachers didn’t have time to do.

Her favorite subject now is history, that is her favorite class.

Melak spends little time online; she has never heard of a blog. She says the classes at Bishop Maginn are small enough that she gets the attention she needs, her teachers are always available to meet with her, the other students support her.

It was something of a miracle when the family got permission to come to the United States, where Melak has lived since 2013. The violence in Syria was terrifying, she said. In Iraq, it was worse.

Entering the Albany public schools, Melak, who is now 16, faced a different kind of war: she was bullied and ridiculed because she only spoke Arabic – the only Arabic speaking child in the school –  and no English.

The refugee children say they fear the high school, the taunting, and bullying is often intense there.

Many of the refugee children I’ve met talk of the harassment, insults, even violence they have faced in recent years in America. But there have been no insults at Bishop Maginn, no harassment or bullying, just love, and support from the faculty and the other students.

Melak replied with a forceful yes when I asked her if one needed to be safe to learn. “I have felt safe at this school from the first day.” And she knows what it means not to feel safe.

For this child of war and violence,  survival depended on learning English, “so I could speak up for myself, and defend myself.”  Principal Mike Tolan said he and she have spirited discussions and arguments about life and school; she has, he says, found her voice there.

I can testify to that; her interview was terrific for anyone that age, let alone for a refugee child who had to overcome so many problems, away and here. I’ve met some refugee children deeply traumatized and scarred by less. The experience of the refugee is itself traumatic.

Melak grew up in the eye of the storm; she is eager to move forward with her education and her life in America.

Her English is almost perfect now; Principal Mike Tolan says, “Melak is one of my best students; she is a remarkable young woman.”

Melak says her life began in America really began when she got to Bishop Maginn High School in December of 2017.

She says she loves her life here.  In Albany, she says, she only hears gunshots once in a while, and they do not frighten her much, they are not nearly as loud or terrifying as the explosions in Syria or the roadside bombs in Iraq, or the kidnappings of children and assassinations.

The school, she says has been her refuge,  her chance to heal and learn. Her parents thought they might have to take her out of the school because of the tuition costs, Mike Tolan persuaded them to let her stay, I agreed to try to raise the money, along with the Army Of Good.

“At the end of the day,” Melak told me, “You have got to do what you have to do. I’ve been able to do that here, and I want to stay.”

(Please help Melak stay at Bishop Maginn if you can. You can send a tax-deductible donation directly to the school: Principal Mike Tolan, Bishop Maginn High School, 75 Park Avenue, Albany, N.Y., 12202. Please stipulate “tuition fund.” Should there be any overage, it will be applied to other students in need of tuition. I’ll be interviewing them over the next weeks and months.)

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