It started as a class assignment, but it became a chance to grieve.
What does it feel like to leave home?
For Abdurazak Ahmed, who came to the U.S. from Kenya three months ago, the memories were fresh: His hometown of Mombasa and its white-sand beaches. Swims in the Indian Ocean. The pet doves he kept on the roof of his family’s four-story apartment building.
But it was a sturdy piece of metal, adorned with turquoise and wrapped around his right ring finger, that held the story of what the 19-year-old missed the most.
Abdurazak shared his story on a recent morning as his classmates at Jefferson County Public Schools’ ESL Newcomer Academy worked nearby, a cacophony of different languages swarming the air.
New Americans, they will start over here, having arrived amid an emotionally charged debate about immigration.
They are the fastest-growing segment of JCPS’ student population. The Newcomer school will serve as a respite to ease their transition before they soon emerge in classrooms alongside their American-born peers.
As arguments play out on the political stage, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the district treasures its students’ diversity.
“It’s so important for us to embrace that — because just as they learn from us, there is so much we learn from them.”
Back in the classroom, Abdurazak continued his story, his warm hickory eyes occasionally gazing up as he searched his mind for the right words.
He recalled early August and a two-weeklong goodbye.
Abdurazak would soon move to Kentucky, where his father and older brother were already settled into new lives. But before he left Kenya, his grandfather had one departing wish.
“He said to me, ‘Before you leave, just stay with me because I don’t know when we’ll see each other again,’ ” Abdurazak recalled.
For a week, they shared each other’s company. And when it was time for Abdurazak to return home to pack, his grandfather insisted on coming along, spending more time before, finally, they found themselves en route to the airport.
With tears in his eyes, Abdurazak’s grandfather took the turquoise ring off his finger and placed it in his grandson’s hand — a reminder of their bond and of the man he hoped Abdurazak would become.
“He always loved to tell me, ‘Don’t give up. You can do it,’ ” Abdurazak said.
Then, from his grandfather, one last wish.
“When you walk away from me, don’t look back.”
Traveling alone, Abdurazak took off from Mombasa, stopping in Addis Ababa and Berlin before landing two days later in Chicago.
His father was there to pick him up.
But instead of the smile Abdurazak was expecting, his dad’s face was grave with concern.
“An hour after you left home, your grandpa left, too. As in forever.”
“At first, when I heard that story, my heart was like, ‘Why come to America?’ ” Abdurazak said.
“But when I remember,” he said, touching his grandfather’s ring, “I just said to my heart, ‘You never give up.’ “
There are hundreds of stories like Abdurazak’s inside the halls of the Newcomer Academy.
Since 2006, the school has served middle and high school students new to the U.S. and still learning English. And each year, it has grown — prompting the district to open multiple locations before opening a single, centralized school this year.
Many of the students’ families arrive in Louisville through the traditional immigration process, but some have settled here after being granted asylum or refugee status because of the dangers they faced in their home countries.
Newcomer’s students stay at the school, on average, for one year, a period school officials say helps students grow their English skills and acclimate to their new lives. From there, they leave Newcomer — and transfer to a regular district school — prepared to make new friends and achieve academically.
Newcomer began the 2018-19 school year with 345 students. By early November, enrollment had risen to 500. It’s part of an annual fluctuation the school prepares for, knowing immigrant students are likely to relocate to Louisville throughout the year.
On a recent fall morning, 20 or so teens streamed into Eric Bookstrom’s arts and humanities class, giggling and flirting as teenagers do, no matter their country of origin.
A panel of their stories, illustrated with colored pencils and captured on 4-by-4-inch cards, hung on the classroom’s front wall. It was a patchwork of different memories, but it spoke to a collective experience: “What we left behind.”
There were drawings of palm trees and snowy mountain peaks. Of pets and soccer fields and best friends. And, in a jarring reminder of the students’ ages, crude drawings of stick figures — family members that were left behind.
“I miss my sister,” read one card decorated with hearts and flourishes.
“I miss my brothers. There are 3,” read another.
Their teacher, “Mr. Book” to his students, said the project was a powerful reminder of how art can communicate feelings. At the same time, he said, it helped students prepare for life beyond Newcomer.
The whole purpose is to teach English,” Bookstrom said. “This project prompts meaningful conversations, which inspires speaking and listening.”
In two back-to-back class periods last month, Bookstrom taught students from more than a dozen countries. Asked why their families left home, the teens shared a common refrain:
“For a better life,” said Roberto, from Venezuela.
“For a better future,” said Jose, from Cuba.
“For more opportunities,” said Aruna, from Nepal.
“There was nothing to do for money,” said Man, from Myanmar.
Altogether, the school serves students from 49 countries. They speak 34 different languages.
“Some families, they’re leaving something terrible and they can’t go back,” said Gwen Snow, the school’s principal since 2010.
Others “give up a lot for their kids to be successful,” she said, noting many parents give up successful careers in their home countries for the promise of a better future for their children in the U.S.
Bookstrom’s students have arrived in a country increasingly divided over immigration, an issue thrust back into the spotlight during the midterm elections.
In October, President Donald Trump falsely claimed terrorists had infiltrated a caravanof asylum-seekers moving toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Those comments, which Trump later tempered, have nonetheless spurred armed civilian militias to head to the border in defense.
Meanwhile, midterm election ads about border security flooded television screens.
For JCPS newcomers trying to find their way, the tense political environment can make their transition to a new home even more difficult. But at school, staff encourage the kids to embrace their identities, helping them see that assimilation to American culture doesn’t mean they need to leave pieces of themselves behind.
“That’s who they are,” Snow said. “You’d have to become a whole new person basically, if you leave that behind.
“So that’s who you are. You always have that with you. Those are your memories. That’s a formative part of growing up. That’s your identity.”
For Bookstrom’s project, the students, mostly 9th- and 10th-graders, used different forms of art to expand upon their 4-by-4 drawings.
Several students made posters, showcasing their countries’ home flags and photos of the lives — and friends — they left behind.
In one photo, two teenage girls with matching waist-length brunette hair take a “selfie” in the reflection of a bathroom mirror. In another, a group of teens sits casually on the beach, a brightly colored towel spread underneath them.
One poster showcases an anime-style drawing of a young girl, tears streaming from her eyes, while another depicts a leafless tree, drawn sparsely in pencil.
“This is my father tree,” the caption read, the student’s grammar still in progress.
Other teens expressed their feelings about leaving home through dance.
Six girls swayed their bodies to the beat of a West African song before the track screeched, cuing a transition to the country song, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” As the music’s twang jolted from the classroom’s speakers, they line-danced, glancing at each other often to confirm the moves.
They named the dance “Culture Shock.”
“A big thing, for them, is exploring and understanding that they’re new to this country and new to this environment and new to our community, but we want them to feel like they’re at home,” Snow said. “This is their new home.”
When students leave Newcomer, they transfer to a regular district school — usually the one closest to where they live. At their new schools, they continue to receive English language support.
At 19, Abdurazak’s next steps come with a time limit.
In JCPS, newcomer students may attend a comprehensive public high school until they turn 21.
At the end of this school year, Abdurazak could choose to pursue a GED. But if he remains dedicated and is willing to take summer classes, Snow said, a diploma from a regular high school could be in reach.
When Abdurazak talks about his future, he is soft-spoken but determined. He’s gaining experience in his father’s garage, where he helps out fixing cars. One day, he hopes to become an airplane mechanic.
Abdurazak admits that his transition to the U.S. hasn’t been easy. He’s been frustrated by some of his grades.
But when that happens, he looks at his grandfather’s ring.
“Even if I lose hope, I just remember what he said,” Abdurazak said. “I always remember his words.”