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Madison Heights charter school offers immigrants hope

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Madison Heights — There is a drawing exercise students are asked to do when they begin their education at Keys Grace Academy Charter School.

Keys Grace Charter Academy founder Nathan Kalasho, left, speaks with Joseph Pennington, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States State Department, while touring the school in Madison Heights on Friday April 28, 2017.

Given a paper plate and a set of markers, the students — a majority of whom are immigrants who have fled Iraq and Syria and arrived in the United States in recent weeks and months — are asked to illustrate their journey from their homeland to immigrant camps and finally to the U.S.

“Usually, there is planes, shootings, blood. Then in all of it, there may be a little flower here and some sunshine. They want something normal to attach to,” said Walid Gammouh, a social worker at the Arab American and Chaldean Council, which provides social services to the school.

That normal is what was on display Friday at the Oakland County charter school while Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Pennington with the U.S. State Department paid a visit to dozens of children from Iraq, Syria and numerous other countries under siege across the Middle East and Africa.

The K-8 school serves more than 475 children of immigrants, primarily from Middle Eastern countries.

Keys Grace Charter Academy students Savyo Naisan (left) and Mareno Yousif wave to Joseph Pennington, Deputy Assistant Secretary, United States State Department, during a tour of Keys Grace Charter Academy in Madison Heights on Friday April 28, 2017.

Pennington served as deputy assistant for the State Department in Iraq in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and was stationed in Iraq as consul general in Erbil, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Assad Kalasho, who founded the school in 2015 with his sons, Nathan and Dylan, invited Pennington to see the work being done there.

“We want him to come and see there is a chance for newcomers here. They can make it. It has to be legal and vetted,” Kalasho said. “He can see those little kids looking beautiful. They were almost being tortured two or three years ago. We feel this operation adds to who we are as Americans.”

It has a curriculum that includes the mandatory teaching of Aramaic as well as a second language of Spanish or French — while the children learn English. The school also offers a host of psychological, medical and legal services for the immigrant community.

Students come from 12 different countries of origin and from more than 20 communities across Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties. Free busing and food is provided to all children as well as a legal aid and medical clinic inside the building for parents.

Pennington toured the school, which had posters in multiple languages hanging above school lockers, a library full of new books and diverse classrooms.

Pennington spoke to students, asking them where he or she was from. Some children did not know the name of the city they fled, while others were quick to talk to the diplomat. Many of children receive services to deal with PTSD, school officials said, including a therapy dog and a therapy garden.

After the tour, Pennington said the educational needs of displaced immigrants who still remain in the Middle East are essential to address.

“There are 3.1 million Iraqis that are still displaced. ...When people are displaced, they are out of school for one to two years. ...The longterm concern is a lost generation,” Pennington said. “So many kids see things no kids should see.”

The school, located near Interstate 75 in Madison Heights, is a successful solution to that issue, he said.

“It’s a powerful example of what can be done,” Pennington said.

Pennington spent some of his time addressing the questions of local Arab community leaders who attended the visit, who asked about progress in Iraq and when displaced people could return home and be safe.

“It’s going to be difficult for the families who return. Stabilization takes decades,” Pennington told the crowd of 50 who gathered in a meeting room inside the school.

Student Danny Talal, 9, came to the school three months ago. His left eye was destroyed after a bomb fell outside his home in Iraq. His father and 12-year-old brother remain there.

His mother is trying to get medical care for Danny, who says he loves to read.

“School is good. I want to learn,” he said.

JChambers@detroitnews.com