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  • Malak Habbak

How One Encina Student Learned English and Stopped Fighting

View this story at Capital Public Radio Ali Al Jayab hasn’t known much stability in his life. Al Jayab, 14, is of Palestinian descent and was born in Baghdad, Iraq. And then the war broke out. “They take people, even the kids,” he says. “War, I saw it. My uncle died in there.... my cousin too.” He says he was sad to leave his home in Iraq. He brought nothing along on his journey to the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, except clothes. In Syria, Al Jayab made friends but wasn’t able to attend school. After nine months, it was time to leave. Another war had broken out. In 2013, he and his family moved to Tuscon, Arizona. While attending school there, Al Jayab says he had no motivation to learn English. That all changed when he came to Encina Preparatory High School the following year. “I love Encina,” Al Jayab says. “It’s great. Encina is not like bad like others saying. No. It’s really good. You can learn fast.”

Ali Al Jayab lingers after school to meet up with friends at Encina Preparatory High School. Al Jayab, a 14-year-old 9th grader, struggled to behave, leading to five suspensions for fighting at school in the last three years. “But now I’m cool...I think last year just had one fight.” 

Ali Al Jayab looks for a seat with friends in the Encina school cafeteria. On some days, he eats lunch with his Arab friends, many of whom translate for those still struggling to learn English. “When I need help they help me,” says Al Jayab.

Al Jayab (bottom right) greets his friend Mahamad Almghrbel,14, with a handshake as he sits down for lunch. In his first three months at Encina, Al Jayab fought with some classmates. Now some of them are friends. “I don’t want to get in trouble anymore,” he says.

After school, Ali Al Jayab practices his soccer moves outside of his apartment complex. Al Jayab says he tries to find a good crowd of friends who have fun playing sports but are also responsible and safe. “I look for good kids like me,” he says.

Ali Al Jayab (right) speaks up in Paul Sanchez’ English Language Development class. Sanchez started teaching at Encina in August. “Ali came in with that brightness that you see – that Ali smile – wanting to participate,” says Sanchez.

Ali Al Jayab still practices English with a previous year’s workbook from school. Now, in his third year at Encina, he translates for some of his friends. He might help them out by going with them to the office to change their schedule or assisting with classwork.

Ali Al Jayab and his friends catch up at the stairwell at his apartment complex after school. They mostly speak in Arabic. As he was learning English, Al Jayab says he would read, listen to slow music with English lyrics and ask for help. Now he enjoys listening to broader ranges of music, including rap by artists such as Shaggy and Snoop Dogg.

Ali Al Jayab finishes his prayer with a “duaa”, an act of daily supplication that is part of his Muslim faith. He remembers celebrating the Muslim religious holiday Eid in Syria, where the “whole place was a party,” he says. There, celebrations included a festival with motorcycles and stuffed sheep sausages.

Ali Al Jayab browses through an Arabic-English dictionary to strengthen his vocabulary. He says learning English is helping him to be more independent and do things by himself. Of his time before Encina he says, “I was like stupid, man,” he chuckles. “I didn’t even know how to say I want to go to the bathroom or something but after like two months I know everything.”

Ali Al Jayab (right) walks to class with his friend Yousif Al-Ghazawi (left). “It’s like my home,” Al Jayab says about Encina. He says the school feels so familiar and welcoming because it is where he has the most support learning English.

Ali Al Jayab poses for a photo in the hallway at Encina. Al Jayab likes the U.S. far better than Iraq and Syria. With a smile he recalls when his dad, Mohammed, gathered him and the family together and told them they would be moving. “I was happy when he told me because I want to move from there... I always want to go to America,” he says.


Journalist & Photographer

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