Maximiliano sits at a computer in the library of Oakland International High School, following English phrases on his screen and through his headphones. He pauses sometimes to look around the room or to help the student next to him with a computer prompt. A teacher stops by and chats with him in English and he tries out his new words.

The 16-year-old started school here in September after escaping from El Salvador and taking a harrowing trip north. The “pandillas,” or drug gangs, are why he left, he explains in a conversation of mixed Spanish and English sprinkled with teenage shyness. The gangs told him to choose his affiliation; join up or else. Instead, he and a family member left.

“It is not safe there,” he says in halting English.

Dozens of boys in this school faced the same grim choice in the past year: join a gang in their hometowns in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, or be killed, according to students, school officials, and advisors. So they took a third, nearly as dangerous option; they traveled thousands of miles atop trains, in buses, on foot and then on flotillas across the Rio Grande and into the United States.


Shahrzad Makaremi, the school’s “capacity builder” and volunteer coordinator, says most traveled with coyotes, and some still owe their coyotes money. Girls came as well, also fleeing threats from pandillas, threats too taboo to talk about. And some came to escape poverty.

Abednego, who left more than a year ago, explains. Press the red arrow to listen to him:

Oakland schools are settling about 350 of the tens of thousands of children who escaped the bloody violence of Central America in the past year and a half. Most here are living with a family member, often a parent who came years earlier to earn money but whom they haven’t seen in years. Some are with distant relatives.

“Many come here with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs,” said Principal Carmelita Reyes about the new students from Central America. “They are unfamiliar with the United States, with the language and school system, and they are thrown to the mercy of the justice system.” Indeed, nearly half face the possibility of deportation.

“Adolescence is a challenging time already,” Reyes said. “Add to that being separated from family, leaving your country and coming to an unfamiliar place, and then the legal process.”  Luckily, what the kids find here at Oakland International and increasingly at two other schools settling Central American students is friendship and community.  For one, there are many other students like them. For two, Oakland International was founded for the very purpose of welcoming immigrants.

Reyes founded the school in 2007 specifically for new immigrants coming to Oakland. Thirty-two languages are spoken at the school and, along with these new children from the border, new students have come from Afghanistan, Burma, Yemen, Mongolia, Eritrea and elsewhere.

Small, at about 400 students, with bilingual or multi-lingual teachers, lush gardens and numerous caring counselors, Oakland International is a haven. Now, Fremont High School in East Oakland and Oakland High School are also receiving newcomers from Central America, and they are modeling their approach after Reyes’ school.


It’s 11 a.m. Biology class at Oakland International, but it doubles as an English class, as do many at the school. Teacher Salem Peterson explains the food chain and acts out a seed traveling in a forest. She pronounces words like pollinate and herbivore and carnivore very slowly and the kids eagerly repeat.

Many of the students are animated, wanting to try their new words and clearly eager to learn. But a few students in the class are not animated, with an expressionless, deer-in-the-headlights kind of gaze on their faces. Three had just arrived this week from Guatemala. One is completely alone here in Oakland, settled with distant relatives she doesn’t know. Another hasn’t been in a classroom in ten years.

She is taken under the wing of students from her country who have been here a while. They translate for her, show her which book or paper to get or how to find the computer menu item.  At each table of six students, one is a translator who makes sure the newest students understand. He or she translates the English into Spanish or sometimes Mam, a Mayan language spoken in northern Guatemala, or at another table, into Arabic; it all depends on the table. Still, everyone wants the attention of teacher Peterson and her bubbly encouragement.

As class ends, Peterson puts an arm around the shoulders of the student living with distant relatives. “You want to talk?”

In Maximiliano’s computer-assisted “Survival English” class, 22 other classmates work at computers, while teacher Lorraine Woodard, fluent in Spanish and a former resident of Mexico, walks around to help them.

“They really want to learn English,” Woodard says. “Some are also learning Spanish for the first time, and they are also learning computer skills. Imagine learning all that at once.”

Principal Reyes:

One of the major friendship builders at the school is soccer. Nearly two-thirds of the kids at the school play in the soccer program run by the nonprofit Soccer Without Borders (See next story in series). It is so popular that Soccer without Borders created four teams at just this tiny school.


Student Elicia Gonzalez left Guatemala a few years ago to join her mother in Oakland and is now a legal resident.

She arrived having had no schooling and speaking neither English nor Spanish. She spoke Mam, but was mostly just quiet.

Now she is fluent in English, a top student and a leader on the soccer team.

“I have a lot of girlfriends on the team that I never knew before. I am the kind of person who wouldn’t talk and I am shy. But I get to soccer and you have to communicate, to pass the ball, to score.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 3.32.25 PM

“At first I didn’t really understand what they were talking about here,” Elicia recalls of when she first arrived, “But something inspired me with soccer, that is how I started to communicate.”

Angel Jimenez, one of the forwards on the boys team, explained “Soccer is my life.” He has been playing since age 6 and thinks about it nearly all the time. He plays every day.

“When I get out of school, I come play.” Another student, Haseen Mohammad from Afghanistan, said, “We all play together. I am happy because they are all my friends” and he is getting to learn Spanish from them.   GRANTS HELP

Oakland Unified School District received grants from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and Y & H Soda Foundation, totaling $75,000, to help settle the children fleeing Central American violence. With that money, the district hired Ariana Flores as the unaccompanied minor support services consultant. The district has also received grants from the state of California, several legal organizations and faith organizations to help.

PLEASE see PART TWO of our series on youth refugees to learn more about the soccer team and how you can help refugees in Oakland Unified School District.  

Fremont High School "newcomers" classroom

About The Author

Barbara Grady is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach her at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.