CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Jack Keptner, a volunteer at Fountain Hill Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, noticed that a few new students were having a hard time adjusting. The four siblings, Tiba (fifth grade), Wisam (fourth grade), and twins Tabarek and Rahmatalaah (first grade), are from Iraq and came to the U.S. last year. Their family first lived in Allentown before moving to Bethlehem in March of this year.
While the school community has been very welcoming and supportive of the Iraqi family, there are no Arabic-speaking teachers or staff. Keptner shared the students' experience with his daughter, Liz Keptner, director of the multimedia innovation center at Penn State Lehigh Valley, who then reached out to some Penn State Lehigh Valley students who speak Arabic and faced similar challenges when their families moved to the U.S. By working with staff at Fountain Hill Elementary, Liz Keptner quickly arranged a special school visit to introduce the Syrian college students to the Iraqi elementary school students in the hopes of establishing a connection that could help the children adjust to life at a new school and in a new country.
On May 26, Penn State Lehigh Valley students Ayman Sara, Jad Selit, Jack Barakat and Maria Tabshi, along with Sara's younger sister, Marina, and Barakat's cousin, Fadi Hanna, spent more than two hours getting to know Tiba, Wisam, Tabarek and Rahmatalaah. The group colored, drew pictures and enjoyed snacks while talking and asking each other questions in Arabic.
Tabshi, a junior corporate communication major at Penn State Lehigh Valley, was born in the U.S., but she has seen Syrian family members and friends transition to life in a new country.
"I was super excited to meet each of the children. I found them all to be friendly, but some were a little shy at first," said Tabshi. "After spending time with them, they started to open up a whole lot more. Tiba said talking to us in Arabic made her feel like she was right back in Iraq. I felt they were glad to have met us and been able to talk to people like them."
Sara, a sophomore civil engineering and premedicine major at Penn State Lehigh Valley, moved to the U.S. two years ago from Syria.
"My family sent me here by myself when I was 18. During my time in America, I have dealt with some racism. I have found it is hard living here. Moving from the Middle East is a tough transition; you have a different culture, different language," said Sara. "Everyone who comes here from another country should talk to someone who has been through it before."
Sara gave his best advice to the students, which was to give the U.S. a chance and to work hard.
"After we spent time with them, they seemed happier and were excited about going to college someday. They may come visit us on campus,“ said Sara. "I hope they do because Penn State Lehigh Valley is the best. I feel like we are a family here, all the students, faculty and staff."
The goal was to introduce the children to people who can relate to them and their experience.
"In watching the group interact, you could tell they were clicking. Their faces lit up and they started smiling," said Liz Keptner. "We wanted to make the first connection for these students and we hope this is the start of an ongoing relationship."