MIDVALE, Utah — In Carrie Dumas’ kindergarten class, every day is different. Like many teachers, she spends her days searching for solutions.
“I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a normal day,” she said. “Every day brings something new, and challenges.”
Sometimes, those challenges are almost too much to handle.
“Students that came to me last year,” she said, “one of them was from Afghanistan, two were from countries in Africa.”
Students who didn’t speak English aren’t uncommon in the halls of East Midvale Elementary — some have only been in the country a couple of weeks.
“I would imagine it’s extremely stressful and difficult,” Dumas said. “I can’t imagine being in their shoes.”
Although Dumas says Canyons School District can provide a translator when needed, that isn’t always an option on a daily basis. But one day, a solution came walking through the school’s front door.
“She recognized the needs of students, especially those learning English,” Dumas said. “She stepped in and offered to help.”
Her name is Baraa Arkawazi — she showed up a few years ago as a student herself.
“I came with my parents, because they have a family learning center,” she said. “They have classes for families to learn English.”
She arrived at the perfect time.
“They said they have a few Arabic students who have a hard time at the school,” Arkawazi said. “They couldn’t speak English, and I think that’s called culture shock — they were confused and scared about everything.”
She could fill hours with stories about her interactions with those children.
“Even when people were nice to them, one of the girls, she said ‘Why are they so nice to me? I don’t know them,'” Arkawazi said. “I said, ‘They want to help you, they want you to be comfortable here at the school.'”
According to Arkawazi, the barrier can go beyond just language — it can come down to trust, and simply being overwhelmed by a new environment.
“‘Why am I here? Why are they nice, and I need to go back to my mom,'” she said, recounting some of the thoughts kids have expressed to her. “They were really confused. They didn’t know how to communicate with other people, so they were, ‘I can’t trust you, we can’t speak the same language, so I’m not going to talk to you,’ and they just refused to do anything here at the school.”
Arkawazi could relate. Like those kids, she was a refugee.
“My father, he was working with the U.S. military,” she said. “I felt them, because when I came, the first couple months, I was really confused and scared and overwhelmed about everything.”
Arkawazi and her family are Kurds, originally hailing from Iraq. She says her dad helped American troops buy supplies and provided them with maps.
“The U.S. military, they have maps, but it doesn’t work in Iraq. They wanted people from that place to guide them, where they should go, and which road is safer than the other ones,” she said. “(In) 2011, when the U.S. military left Iraq, we were in danger.”
The past isn’t something Arkawazi likes spending a lot of time talking about. She likes to focus on what’s ahead for her, instead of what’s behind — but once the U.S. troops left, her family found itself in a bad situation, as other locals began threatening them.
“Saying things like ‘We need to leave, this isn’t our home anymore,'” she said.
Arkawazi, her parents and her two brothers fled to Turkey, where they waited for four long years — until finally, they were allowed to settle in Utah.
“I was excited and happy to come here, but at the same time when you come here, you start from zero,” she said. “I didn’t have job experience, I didn’t have a degree.”
So she started learning English. She started volunteering around the school, bouncing from class to class, helping kids to feel a little more at home.
She did so much that Canyons School District recently honored Arkawazi with their 2019 Apex Award for “Volunteer of the Year,” in recognition of her efforts and her unbelievable 1,100 volunteer hours.
But now, she’s moved beyond that. Although her responsibilities change from day to day, you’ll often find her in a small room, helping students work on their English skills.
Arkawazi is no longer a volunteer. With the help of the school’s staff, she’s officially an employee.
“I passed the highly qualified test, so they can hire me here,” she said. “The teachers here gave me help and advice, and materials to read and study.”
But Arkawazi is only here part-time — that’s because every day at noon, she has somewhere else to be.
“Going to Salt Lake Community College, because I want to get my degree to become a special education teacher,” she said.
I’m home now. This is my home, and this is what I want to do. I want to become a teacher.
–Baraa Arkawazi, Iraqi refugee
It’s hard to question all the effort Arkawazi’s put in, but she’s quick to also give credit to all those who helped her, and all the organizations and programs that gave her and her family the assistance they needed to get on their feet.
“The first six months, I had some help,” she said. “I wasn’t working, and none of my family was working. Here, you need to get your resume, and we didn’t have that thing in my country. So we were learning about it.”
She and her family are now able to support themselves, and Arkawazi is looking forward to a future where she can focus on giving back to others.
“I will not say I’m forced to be here, but I have been in a situation that I had to leave my country,” she said. “United States was the only choice for me to be safe and to have a life.”
Having her here makes her colleagues at East Midvale Elementary extremely appreciative.
“It’s invaluable,” Dumas said. “I can’t imagine being a kid who has someone that they can talk to when they come to a school, and everyone is speaking another language — to have someone know their language and speak to them in that language, I imagine is such a relief to them, and I’m so grateful for Baraa.”
Around here, every day brings new challenges —and it’s now home to someone who’s found a purpose in helping others to find a solution.
“I’m home now,” Arkawazi said. “This is my home, and this is what I want to do. I want to become a teacher.”