Last month, teenage brothers Saman and Hamada Haaji were glued to the television set in their Southeast Portland home, watching France play Germany in an exhibition soccer game in Paris.

Then they heard the noise: a dull "kaboom."

Like the soccer players they were watching, Saman and Hamada didn't immediately realize the explosion was the work of terrorists. Within minutes, however, the Portland teens could flip the channel and learn about the terror that was unfolding. Gunmen and bombers murdered what would eventually climb to 130 civilians enjoying a night in Paris.

Saman and Hamada are refugees from Somalia who spent most of their youth in Egypt. They had grown up amid war, nearly numb to violence. Yet the Paris massacre left the brothers, who are Muslim, feeling distressed.

"It was so sad," says Hamada, a junior at David Douglas High School. "It was a beautiful day. There was a soccer game. And some stupid people did something bad."

In the wake of last month's terror attacks in Paris, many American politicians— including most of the Republican front-runners for president—are demanding much stronger restrictions on immigrants and refugees entering the United States, especially Syrians fleeing the war that has sundered their nation.

That backlash strikes some Oregonians as hateful and ignorant. (Syrian refugees already undergo a grueling, two-year screening process to enter the U.S.; see below.)

It's also far too late.

More than 1,000 refugees come to Oregon each year. One in five people in Portland don't speak English at home.

The real question is no longer how to keep people out of this country. It's how to make them part of it.

No place in Portland tackles the job of assimilation better than the David Douglas School District.

Hamada and Saman Haaji, 17 and 15, came to the United States from Egypt and settled in Portland less than a year ago. They were born in Somalia, but fled amid war. (Thomas Teal)
Hamada and Saman Haaji, 17 and 15, came to the United States from Egypt and settled in Portland less than a year ago. They were born in Somalia, but fled amid war. (Thomas Teal)

Nearly three years ago, WW visited David Douglas High School in outer Southeast Portland, where district officials said students spoke 55 languages.

That year, David Douglas earned statewide recognition—few other school districts achieved such high test scores and graduation rates with such a diverse student body. Oregon school administrators picked their superintendent of the year (Don Grotting), elementary principal of the year (Ericka Guynes) and middle-school principal of the year (James Johnston) all from the David Douglas School District.

Johnston's Alice Ott Middle School also earned recognition as a "model school" by the state Department of Education for its superior test scores.

And now the spotlight on the district is national.

A recent report from the New America foundation in Washington, D.C., says David Douglas has an exceptionally good track record when it comes to teaching young children English.

Starting three years ago, David Douglas totally revamped its English-language instruction by getting rid of elementary classes that segregated students who spoke a foreign language. Now, all children from kindergarten to fifth grade—no matter their native language—spend blocks of time in English-language instruction grouped by ability.

For 30 minutes a day, students of all levels practice their language skills by talking, listening, reading and writing.

Grotting, the superintendent, says teachers also weave language instruction into academic courses such as math and that all children benefit from the focus on communication. "It's not rocket science," he says. "It just made sense."

The results, while encouraging, haven't completely transformed the district. For one thing, the oldest students to benefit from the program have reached only the eighth grade. At the high-school level, English-language instruction still looks like it used to, with non-English-speaking students pulled into special classes in a high-speed effort to teach them proficiency before they leave or graduate.

"When people hear 'refugee,' they think they're all the same," says Anne Downing, an English-language teacher at David Douglas High School. "They're not. They're real people."

As the wave of people fleeing war zones continues, innovative programs like those at David Douglas will become even more necessary.

And no one can testify to that need like the kids who learned at David Douglas what it means to be American.

At a time when this nation's values are under assault from people who would lock its doors, we sat down with five David Douglas High School students and talked about what coming here means to them.

They talked about how they got here, the hardest parts of adjusting, and what they would say to Donald Trump.

The students in this conversation:

Yuyan Luo, 18, emigrated from Taishan, China, in December 2013 with her parents, who wanted their only daughter to master English. A senior at David Douglas High School, she says one of the best things about the U.S. is that her family can afford to travel and own a car.


Saman and Hamada Haaji, 15- and 17-year-old brothers, escaped violence in Somalia, where they were born, and lived for nine years in Cairo, where they waited for a chance to move to the U.S. They witnessed history when the Arab Spring of 2011 pushed Egypt into revolution. "It was like a war," Saman, a sophomore, says. "It was not safe there." The brothers, who are Muslim, moved to Portland in January 2015.


Sun Ye, 16, moved from China like Yuyan. Unlike Yuyan, Sun was actually born in the United States on the island of Saipan in the western Pacific Ocean. She lived in Jiangmen, China, from the time she was about 2 months old until she was 13. "Here I would get a better future," the high-school junior says.


Richard Seco, 17, emigrated from Pinar del Río, Cuba, in May 2013. "There weren't a lot of opportunities for us," he says, explaining the move. He spoke no English when he arrived. "Now I speak two languages," the junior says. "I want to be a police officer."


WW: What was the process like for coming to the U.S.?

Yuyan: It's not so difficult. We waited for about 12 years.

Saman: We waited nine years.

Was that wait unbearably long?

Yuyan: We almost didn't have any hope about this, but suddenly it comes.

Hamada: We were just living life. Then we had a chance to move to the United States, and we accepted.

Tell me about the moment when you learned you would move to the U.S.

Yuyan: My feelings? When I knew, the first time, I was so excited. "I can go America! U.S.A.!" Then I was nervous. A new environment. A new language. And money.

Saman: It was the best moment. A lot of things were going to change in our lives.

How did you end up in Portland?

Yuyan: We picked Portland because my aunt is here.

Saman: We had a brother here.

Sun: I have family here—an uncle and an aunt.

Richard: My stepdad was here already.

What did America mean to you when you found out you'd be moving here?

Yuyan: My second chance.

Hamada: A good school, a good house, good food.

Saman: Safety. A bright future.

Richard: America for me is the whole continent of North America and South America. The thing about the U.S. is that it's really fun. If you say you're from the U.S., people say, "Wow, good."

Now that you're here, what's the most interesting thing about the U.S.?

Richard: How many different cultures there are. It's like, wow, amazing. In Cuba, it's just Cubans.

Did you speak any English before coming here?

Yuyan: Yes, but not good. We learn English in China, too.

Hamada: I studied it in school in Cairo.

Saman: I taught myself. From movies, YouTube. I love English, so I learned it by myself.

What's the hardest part about learning English?

Yuyan: The listening, because they speak so fast. Some people ask me questions, and I say, "What?"

Saman: I don't see English as hard. It's just time. It takes time. Everything has steps.

Richard: Some people don't try to understand

you. You need their help, and they're like, "You don't speak English."

How has learning English changed your life?

Yuyan: My parents don't speak English. So now I can translate for them. It's hard for me. But it's hard for them, the hardest part for them.

Has your relationship with your parents changed because they depend on you?

Yuyan: No, we are closer. We are together here. We face the same problems, and we fix them together.

How do you feel in Portland? Do you feel safe here?

Saman: I always feel safe here.

How do students treat you here?

Saman: Normal. Like one of them.

Yuyan: If I ask them questions, they always answer, and patiently. They help me a lot.

Have you ever heard of Donald Trump?

Richard: Yes.

Saman: No.

Hamada: No.

Yuyan: I've heard his name. Is he running for president? He wants to make a list of Muslim people. I think that's not good. We don't only have Muslims here. If it's just for Muslims, it sounds like Muslims are the problem. That's not fair for them.

Saman: I'm not happy with that. The terrorists, in my opinion, are not Muslim. They are not Muslim for me. I'm mad about what the people did in Paris, and what they did in Egypt, too. It makes me sad.

Richard: He's just trying to do that because of terrorism, but not all of them are Muslims. He's just trying to gain white-people power so he can be president.

If Donald Trump were to come to David Douglas, what would you tell him?

Yuyan: We have other ways to figure out this.

Saman: The five fingers of the hand are not the same.

Hamada: Everyone makes mistakes, but don't blame Islam.

Richard: I wouldn't talk to him. I wouldn't look at him. I would go home. If I had to skip school because I had to look at him, I would.

What do you think of some presidential candidates' idea that we should restrict the flow of refugees?

Yuyan: We should not stop. I remember Obama said, "We accept refugees," right? If they worry about the dangers, I think we can do good protection in the U.S.

Saman: I think that's wrong. The refugees aren't the people who are hurting people. They are running from the people who are hurting the people. They come into Europe and the United States, and they are fearful. They don't want to fight and have war. They want to move and have peace.

Hamada: They come to be safe.

Sun: It's not good. America has a lot of immigrants. If they say no, it's not America.


This week's cover is a nod to the famous Oct. 30, 1975 front page of the The New York Daily News, after President Gerald Ford declared he would veto federal assistance to the city.

The Miracle Continues: Refugee student Hae Nay Paw graduates from David Douglas.

Hae Nay Paw arrived in Portland six years ago knowing only two words in English: water and eat. This year, she had plenty to say to the graduates of David Douglas High School.

WW last visited David Douglas in February 2013, telling the story of "a United Nations of teenagers" where nearly half the student body began school knowing little or no English. Our reporter, Rachel Graham Cody, focused on Hae Nay, a tiny sophomore who grew up in a Thai refugee camp. Hae Nay, a member of the persecuted Karen minority in Myanmar, was determined to learn English and pursue a career as a nurse.

Last spring, Hae Nay succeeded. She was chosen to give a speech at David Douglas' commencement.


Hae Nay is now a freshman pre-nursing major at Warner Pacific College in Southeast Portland. "It's really hard to be a full time student and have a job and have a strong relationship with family members and friends," she tells WW. "I took it as a lesson and will try even harder next semester."

Here's an excerpt from the speech she gave to her fellow graduates in May:

Many of you don’t know me—well, you might know that I’m very short.

I, like some of you, am from one of the refugee camps in Thailand. Many of you don’t know that my family were originally in Burma, but we needed to flee Burma because of war and persecution against the Karen people.

My parents feared for their lives and my future. That’s why they gave up their hometown to come to the United States five years ago. Five years ago, I speak no English, and communication was really hard, but I thought getting a free education was a blessing.

I’m not the only one. Many students have gone through the same experience. You see, in many countries, education is not free, and all of us should be thankful, because we get this gift that many people don’t.

And all of us should be thankful to have people help us to get to this year. Like my parents sacrificed for my future, I’m sure that your parents have done the same for you. Our parents love us so much that they’re willing to do anything to see us smile.

Thank you to all these wonderful people. We’re going to get our diploma today. They taught us so much throughout the years. They taught us how to persevere, and how to be thankful of what we have, instead of focusing on what we don’t have. We will never forget you.

Coming (Slowly) to America: The road to refuge for Syrians is long.

Politicians nationwide—including most Republican presidential candidates—are demanding stricter screening for Syrian refugees in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris. But as many reporters have noted, the current process for vetting refugees often takes two years. Here are the steps the White House requires before Syrian refugees are allowed to enter the United States. COBY HUTZLER

1. Refugees apply to the United Nations. The U.N.'s refugee agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees, collects identifying documents, conducts eye scans, and verifies the applicants are actually refugees. Less than 1 percent of the global refugee population makes the cut.

2. Applicants who are referred to the U.S. are received by a federally funded Resettlement Support Center, which collects the identifying documents, creates an applicant file and preps information for "biographic security checks."

3. These checks start with security screenings by U.S. agencies, including the FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Homeland Security and State Department. The agencies look for possible connections to known bad actors, outstanding arrest warrants and immigration or criminal violations.

4. All applicants are interviewed, but Homeland Security conducts enhanced reviews of Syrian refugees, using the information to prepare interview questions. Applicants' fingerprints are collected, and if fingerprint results or new information raise questions, applicants may be reinterviewed.

5. Fingerprints are taken—again—and screened against databases and watch lists at the FBI, Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. These databases contain applicants' previous immigration encounters around the world, as well as fingerprints obtained in Iraq and elsewhere. If there is any question applicants pose a security risk, they will not be admitted.

6. The need for a medical screening is determined. Refugees may be provided treatment for communicable diseases. Cases may be denied if applicants have a disease or illness that is communicable (tuberculosis), quarantinable (cholera, yellow fever), or part of a declared public health emergency (polio, SARS, smallpox).

7. Applicants take cultural-orientation classes. U.S.-based nonprofits determine the best resettlement location for applicants.

8. Travel is booked by the International Organization for Migration. Applicants are then screened by the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Some applicants don't make it past this step. Those who don't get flagged may travel to the U.S.

9. All refugees are required to apply for a green card within one year of their arrival in the U.S. This triggers another set of security procedures.