EL CAJON, Calif. — Rhonda Fattohi gathered the children on the rug at the front of the classroom, a cluster of eager faces awaiting her next cue. By some stroke of luck, they had made it here, 20 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders whose families had escaped turmoil and hardship in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Mexico.
“Who can tell me about your country? Starting with ‘Where I’m from,’ ” Fattohi asked, and tiny hands shot up.
“Where I’m from, we play soccer,” one boy said. “Where I’m from, I like to eat biryani,” another said.
This is the “newcomer” class, where Fattohi officially teaches English as a second language. Unofficially, she offers these children something much more profound: a vision of what it means to be an American.
That task has been complicated by the election of President Trump, who is seeking to reshape the American identity through strict limits on immigration. Trump’s assertion that some immigrants can’t — or won’t — assimilate into American society has left some immigrants here with the sense that it may not be possible for them to belong in a nation where many voters view Mexicans as violent criminals and the Muslim religion as fundamentally un-American.
A city of 104,000 just east of San Diego, El Cajon is home to one of the largest Arabic- and Chaldean-speaking populations in the country. Since the 1980s, the city has welcomed Chaldeans, members of Iraq’s Christian minority, who every Sunday pack the pews of three local churches, where services are conducted entirely in their native language.
In recent years, Muslim Iraqis have followed, along with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. On Main Street, so many shops bear Arabic signs that the city is often called “Little Baghdad.” This school year alone, the Cajon Valley Union School District has absorbed 836 new foreign-born students, nearly a third of whom are Syrian refugees.
Among them are the children of Naema Hendawi, who, six months after arriving, is still grappling with the strangeness of this new place, and doubts about whether the family can succeed here. She and her husband, who is blind, are also alarmed by the high cost of living and the shortage of decent jobs. And they still can’t ask for directions, read signs or communicate while shopping in English, relying instead on their 14-year-old son to translate.
Hendawi wants her seven children to learn English, to get an education, to find jobs and to build their own families — things she feels certain would have been denied them in Syria. But on the Arabic-language satellite channels she watches, the news anchors constantly remind her of the precariousness of her position in a nation where “even American citizens” were stopped at the airports under Trump’s first stab at a travel ban on visitors from seven majority-Muslim nations.
Trump “hates Muslims,” Hendawi says. “He wants to send all the Muslims back.”
Rosa Muñoz, a local nurse and a native-born American, lives with Jose Luis Vernal, a Mexican citizen. Trump’s rhetoric has made their city feel less welcoming, they said, and Vernal finds himself happier when the family spends weekends at their second home in Tijuana.
Vernal and Muñoz — who have long used the word “American” to mean white — said that, even before Trump’s election, they felt that Americans do not always treat them as equals.
Amir Bajelori, who arrived in El Cajon 20 years ago, takes a practical approach when he counsels his growing flock of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who pray at the Kurdish Community Islamic Center.
“You can practice your religion here, but some other things that you do at home [in Iraq or Syria] are not allowed here,” he said he told them during a recent sermon, “like raising your voice, putting too many kids in a car, driving without a license.”
Some of the new arrivals are offended to see U.S. women wearing revealing clothing or are upset by the presence of dogs in their apartment buildings, animals often considered unclean by practicing Muslims. But he tells them to deal with it.
“You have to respect them,” Bajelori says; in the United States, people have the right to be different.
In the center of El Cajon at Anza Elementary, Fattohi, 41, delivers a similar message. On the sunny campus of garden plots and science projects, 70 percent of the students speak a language other than English at home.
For two hours a day, five days a week, Fattohi teaches the new arrivals reading, writing, speaking and phonics (“In English, we don’t pronounce all the letters,” she reminds them), but also the importance of showing up on time for appointments, wearing seat belts and not calling people fat.
On a recent afternoon, Fattohi held up a picture of two girls studying a book together. “Where is Yasmin from, and what language does she speak?” she asked her class.
“Iran!” a boy volunteered. “Farsi!” said another.
Each day that week, they had talked about these fictional characters: Yasmin, a new Iranian student in a headscarf, and Olivia, an American with blond hair. Yasmin gets bullied for wearing a headscarf, and Olivia learns to put herself in Yasmin’s shoes, feel her pain and comfort her.
“When she puts herself in Yasmin’s shoes, what’s that called?” Fattohi asked.
“Empathetic,” said Ahmad, a 9-year-old who had arrived the year before from Afghanistan. Once a reticent boy who had trouble following instructions, he has blossomed into one of Fattohi’s most enthusiastic students.
She hit play on the classroom speakers, and the children belted out a song: “Oh, empaaathyy! Means feeling what others feeeeel!”
Fattohi likes to tell her students where she’s from and who she is. She wants them to know that you can struggle with English at first and still turn out okay; that you can maintain traditional values and love America; that you can eat biryani and still belong.
The daughter of Chaldean immigrants, she was born and raised in Detroit, socializing mostly with other Chaldeans at the local Chaldean club and Chaldean church. Fattohi’s father — who stayed involved in Iraqi politics as a political dissident abroad — at one point launched a Chaldean radio show.
The family later moved to a San Diego suburb without a large Iraqi community. There, Fattohi tells her students, she realized at age 12 that she, too, spoke English with an accent. Her classmates in California made fun of her. She struggled for years with her sense of identity. She was embarrassed about her parents’ heritage, determined to fit in however she could.
Then the family moved to El Cajon, she says, and she finally felt that she belonged.
Today, Fattohi tries to impress upon her students that being an American starts with the kind of diversity found in her classroom, as well as a freedom of thought that is novel to many students from more homogeneous nations.
“I want them to take ownership. I want them to be proud of their roots and their heritage,” she says. “You don’t want them to forget that. You want them to fit in, but not blend in.”
Fattohi learned these things from her parents — model Americans, in her view. They still speak with Iraqi accents, cook traditional food and call their village in northern Iraq home. They raised their children to speak Chaldean. They also worked diligently, moved their family to more prosperous neighborhoods when they could, paid their taxes and cast ballots for U.S. presidents. In November, her father — a conservative who yearns for the glory days of Detroit’s auto industry — voted for Trump.
“You don’t have to love the president or the government or say the Pledge of Allegiance,” she said. “You need to do what you need to do to get by.”
Fattohi often reads challenging books with her students, even though they’re unable to understand all the words. On this day, it’s “Bedhead,” a book about a boy who wakes up with bad hair.
The words are difficult: “Milk was spilled, spit and sputtered. And two toast toasties did triple back flips onto the breakfast table.” But Fattohi reads with such theatrics — her voice rising and falling, squealing and shouting — that the words don’t really matter.
She has every child’s attention as she demonstrates the bedhead hair going “up, down, around and around.”
Forty tiny hands flutter in pantomime, and 20 small voices rise in unison, shouting the words along with her.