Guest Post: A Parent in the West Bank Values Classroom Diversity

Donna Stefano is project director at the Cooperative Housing Foundation—known simply as CHF International— which serves more than 20 million people each year around the world. CHF International’s headquarters are based in Silver Spring, Maryland, but staff members worldwide assist low- and moderate-income communities improve their social, economic and environmental conditions. Based in the West Bank, Stefano is a single, American mother with a nine year old son. He was born in Maryland, and when in the States they call Silver Spring home.

A Parent in the West Bank Values Classroom Diversity

How fortunate our children are to live in the greater metropolitan D.C. area, with all its ethnically and culturally diverse populations. Growing up in a diverse area better prepares them for the future of living in an increasingly global community, and I like to think my own experience proves it.

A few short years ago, when my son was five, I enrolled him in kindergarten in our local public school in Silver Spring. The 25 students in that kindergarten class hailed from almost every single continent. The annual celebration of International Day was the school’s pride and joy, with full participation from extended families showing off their beautiful traditional costumes and homemade cooking.

My son and his classmates were talking about the event days ahead of time. I loved how his classmates’ backgrounds, native languages, names and dress were all taken for granted in a way that was never divisive.

Because everybody was different, nobody was different.

I think it was part of this exposure to such diverse backgrounds that eased our transition to life overseas when we moved to the West Bank a year later for my job with CHF International, the Silver Spring-based international development organization. Suddenly, my son found himself in a class of Palestinians who were anxious to put him into a category; he was an American child, with an Arab name, who didn’t speak a word of the Arabic language. His classmates and their parents were very confused by us.

Part of that desire to put an identity on my son was due mostly to long-standing cultural traditions in much of the Middle East. Here, a person’s social status depends on the family lineage, or their religion, or their tribal affiliations. Our social status was limited, I had no links to a “big, good” Palestinian family, nor do I have a husband linked to such a family. And while my son is Muslim, he found himself tongue-tied in the school’s mandated-religious education classes.

The kids perceived him as “different” in a way that I don’t think he could comprehend because of his early schooling in Silver Spring’s diverse classrooms. Halfway through his first school year, an Australian child joined his class. He and my son quickly bonded over their unclassifiable status.

Eventually, I put him in an American international school in Jerusalem geared toward the expatriate crowd.  He was back into an environment in which everybody was different, and that feels most comfortable to him now.  Once again, the school’s international day is celebrated with full fanfare.

He comes home from his day at school with stories about the different foods in his classmates’ lunchboxes, and that has (thankfully!) opened up his desire to more courageously explore different cuisines.  While my son has not had the opportunity to play a good old game of baseball with his classmates in the past four years,  he has taken  an interest in sports that are national pastimes in several of his classmates’ countries – tennis, skiing and surfing to name a few.  He has learned all the different ways that Christmas is celebrated across the world and, in the spirit of inclusion, has requested to celebrate them all!

Most importantly for my son, who now dreams of visiting “every single country in the world!”, he has developed lasting friendships with families who have issued open invitations to their homes across the globe.  I can’t wait to share our home in Silver Spring with them one day, showing off our roots made up of a wonderfully diverse community.

Donna Stefano is a project director for CHF International, an international development and humanitarian aid organization based in Silver Spring, MD. She currently resides in Jerusalem with her young son. They both call Silver Spring home. Read more of her writings in the Huffington Post and Role/Reboot.

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