By Alexa West
The first several years Raghad Alshammary spent in the United States were not easy. As a refugee from Baghdad, Iraq, she experienced bullying, difficulty with language barriers and cultural differences.
These tribulations inspired the 17-year-old to help other multicultural students by creating the International Students Club at North Star High School.
With the help of Cara Morgenson, a second-year English Language Learner teacher at North Star, the organization came to life five months ago in January 2016.
“We decided to put the club together because we wanted people to not feel strange and alone,” said Alshammary, a junior at North Star.
The club aims to give ELL students a place for to go where they can talk about different cultures and allow students to learn more about their peers.
Alshammary’s first experiences in the United States were not good ones. The family came from Iraq to El Cajon, California. From the start, she said she was bullied because of her head wrap and thick accent. She also had difficulty understanding the “rules” of American culture such as eye contact and women speaking in large groups of people, which are considered disrespectful in her home culture.
When the family moved to Lincoln several years ago, Alshammary said, she experienced a smoother transition.
“There are a lot of multicultural people here so I found friends easier, and they were understanding cause a lot of people speak with the same accent and we understand each other.”
Understanding is what Alshammary wants to nurture through the club.
“We wanted people to know more about those students because there were a lot of false ideas that were around about ELL students or the students who come from Middle West,” she said. “We wanted people to see the real people and see what they can do besides learning English and leaving their families.”
A club with a purpose
All clubs at North Star are open to all students.
“We decided to have the club focus on international students in order to give all students who show an interest in meeting other students from different parts of the world a place to go,” Morgenson said.
The club is showing refugees and other multicultural students that they aren’t alone and that they can find help if they want it, Alshammary said.
“It (the club) can help with taking away some of the fears that the students have and make them have friends and be a small family that can stand beside you if you want help,” she said.
The club, which meets every Monday after school, has about 22 to 25 students who attend regularly.
One of those is Barra Albayati, a junior at North Star who said she enjoys making friends from other cultures.
“This experience helped me know about people that are completely different from me and have different perspectives,” said Albayati, an Iraqi refugee.
Although the club has only been active for five months, Alshammary said it has steadily grown. And the members’ relationships have become stronger.
Strong bonds created
Albayati agreed. She said the club has taught her how to get along with more people and to make friends more easily.
“I have a very close and kind relationship with the students in international student club,” she said.
As the club sponsor, Morgenson has witnessed the bonds that the students have formed. She said she has seen students who have are relatively quiet in class become more social because of the club.
Morgenson said a big benefit is that the club takes place outside of school, which she said she thinks creates a relaxed atmosphere that allows students more time to connect, make friends and just hang out.
When the group meets, activities include discussing current issues, playing board games and going on field trips, such as visit to the Capitol or the movies.
“I think community and that culture sharing is really key to the club,” Morgenson said. “It really gives students a sense of community beyond the classroom.”