DENVER (AP) – When a passenger on a Denver city bus publicly insulted all Muslims earlier this year after terrorist attacks in France, Jeneba Berety, then a senior at South High School, spoke up.
She defended her faith, telling the man that Muslims are good people. After realizing that no other passengers were backing up her statements, Berety got off the bus, a little shaken but proud that she had taken a stand.
“My mother and grandmother have been so good to teach me that,” Berety said. “So have the adults at South.”
Berety, who was born in Sierra Leone in the middle of a civil war, was one of 1,600 students at South High School during the 2016-17 school year. At South, students from all backgrounds and beliefs fill the classrooms, where they are welcomed with opened arms and offered a path to success, said principal Jen Hanson. More than a third of the student body last year was foreign-born.
“They come from across the street and from across the world,” Hanson said. “We believe we are the epitome of what a public school can and should be.”
Last school year, the school’s diversity was center stage when Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani woman who has fought for girls’ education across the globe, visited the campus a few weeks before the U.S. presidential election.
The past 10 months, though, have been challenging as a new administration in the White House has changed the tenor of immigration policy in the United States.
“That’s been a really hard thing here this year,” Hanson said. “The day after the election was a very stressful day here because there were so many unknowns.”
Students worried about the Trump administration’s attempts to impose travel bans for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. And they’ve expressed increased fear of deportation of people living in the country illegally, including themselves or family members and friends. And there are fears surrounding the possibility that President Donald Trump or a Republican-controlled Congress will rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy put in place by President Barack Obama that offered protections to people brought to the United States illegally as minors.
The school’s teachers and staff members try to stay aware of changing U.S. policies and how they might affect students, especially those preparing for life after graduation, Hanson said.
Shortly after the presidential election, some of the school’s female Muslim students were harassed for wearing their head scarves on an RTD bus. RTD put extra security on the routes used by South High School students, Hanson said.
The harassment hasn’t stopped.
On Aug. 23, a black South student was assaulted on an RTD bus in what Denver Public Schools described as a racially motivated attack. Two men were taken into custody in connection with the attack.
“That was hard,” Hanson said of the attack. “I’m worried for our students.”
Other students came to the aid of their classmate, and they used their cellphones to take photos and videos of the incident.
“I feel two ways about it,” Hanson said. “I’m so amazed by our kids. They know who to stand up for and when to stand up. I’m also really sad that 14-year-old boys had to stand up to adults.”
After the attack, the school’s faculty met to prepare teachers to talk with students about what happened and to give advice about how to respond should they find themselves in a similar situation, Hanson said.
“What’s sad is our kids have experienced negative things from adults,” she said. “Unfortunately, they (adults) have been emboldened by national interests and national leaders.”
South’s current student body comes from 62 countries. Of the 1,600 students, more than 400 are considered English language learners.
South was designated a “newcomer” school in the 1990s, meaning it accepts refugees and immigrants who may not have much formal education or who do not speak English. This year, there are 24 students in the newcomers program, including teenagers who came to the United States as unaccompanied minors, Hanson said.
South is one of six newcomer schools in the Denver Public School system, making it one of the most diverse schools in the district, said Will Jones, a district spokesman.
South has paraprofessionals who speak nine languages among them, Hanson said. She’s looking for an instructor who speaks Swahili to assist students from East and Central Africa.
Many students’ parents fled oppressive governments and wars, and they use their elders’ stories as an incentive to succeed at South.
Berety’s mother fled Sierra Leone during a civil war while she was pregnant with Berety. She was separated from her family and gave birth in the forest while fleeing to Gambia. In Gambia, Berety’s mother finally reunited with her parents, who eventually moved the family to the United States.
Berety earned a full scholarship to the University of Denver, and she moved into the dorms on campus on Sept. 1. She said her mother’s and grandparents’ strength and hard work pushed her to succeed in school.
“You know they sacrifice a lot for you, so the pressure not to let them down is a lot,” Berety said. “You feel like you’re carrying them. It’s a way to say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate everything you’ve done and I’m not going to let you down.’”
Berety wishes more people could experience South High because it would give them a chance to learn from others and become more understanding and accepting of people with different skin colors, religious beliefs and political opinions.
“I’ve met so many different people, and they’ve all taught me something about life I didn’t know,” she said. “They’ve taught me a lot about the world. I have views I wouldn’t have without talking to them.”
Shambel Zeru, another 2017 graduate, fled Eritrea on foot with a classmate to escape mandatory military service. They lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before Zeru was resettled in Colorado. He hasn’t seen his father or siblings in more than seven years and is an advocate for other refugee students.
Fuwei Huang’s family left China in 2012 so he could have a better future. The recent graduate learned English as a teenager while his parents started over in the United States, working in restaurants.
“When I got a bad grade, I’d see the sadness on their faces,” he said. “I didn’t want to see them disappointed.”
His classmates at South also inspired him to work hard.
“All my friends got serious in the last two years, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to get beat by them,’” Huang said.
His years at South High led to close friendships, Huang said, and prepared him for the work ahead at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I figure I’m too lucky,” he said.
Sordum Deeyaa, who graduated in May, was born in Louisiana, where his family had moved from Nigeria because his father was a political activist who opposed the government’s exploitation of natural resources.
Deeyaa’s father inspired him to be active as a student.
He volunteered throughout his high school years, participated in student government and once helped orchestrate a student-led campaign that persuaded RTD to keep open a bus route used by students. His good grades and volunteer work led to a full scholarship to the University of Colorado Boulder from the Daniels Fund.
At South, Deeyaa found a diverse group of friends. His inner circle included teenagers from New York City, Mexico, Congo, China and Ghana.
“I didn’t know you could have a high school like this,” Deeyaa said. “Even with cliques, there’s a oneness we have at South.”
For Berety, South taught her to be comfortable with her African and Muslim heritage. She encourages others to take time to talk to people from different backgrounds to learn about who they are and where they have been. She, for one, isn’t afraid to tell her story.
“South taught me how to hold my own,” Berety said. “My experience prepared me to accept that I’m different. Some people may have a problem with that. But it’s not my problem.”