The church pictured above is the Mission San Jose in Omran al-Sharif’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas. It was founded in the 1700s by Spanish Catholic missionaries and, early on, helped large groups of refugees.
A Refugee’s Refugee
Syria. Libya. Egypt.
These countries are part of the ancestry of Omran al-Sharif who works for Pearson in San Antonio, Texas.
His wife is from Mexico. His mother is from Zanzibar.
“My mother had to flee her country in the 1960s,” Omran says. “A revolution had begun —it was more of an ethnic cleansing—and people with Arab ancestry were singled out.”
Omran’s mother traveled with her family to England and elsewhere. She eventually settled in Oman where she was granted citizenship.
“She’d been to college and was very well educated,” Omran says. “Her siblings also had strong education backgrounds.”
“Education helped them survive as refugees—but also be a part of bringing Oman into the 21st century,” he says.
Omran says: “I’m a big believer in education.”
San Antonio’s Melting Pot
Today, Omran helps schools in San Antonio and elsewhere find curriculum resources for world languages, mathematics, science, and other subjects.
It’s a particularly useful skill in the community because of the large number of refugees who have settled there.
“Behind English, Arabic is a first language for many in this community—not just Spanish,” Omran says.
“There are Iraqis here, refugees from Burma and Nepal and Somalia and Congo,” he says, “There are 32 different languages spoken at my daughter’s school.”
Omran is a frequent volunteer in various programs aimed at new refugee arrivals in his daughter’s school.
“I want these kids to feel connected,” he says. “I want to show them that people care about their well-being.”
Omran helps teach math to students who are still learning English.
He’s also working with local refugee advocates to see how Pearson can pitch in.
“There’s this learning resource for K-12 students called iLit,” Omran says. “It helps children learn to read, write, speak, and comprehend English.”
iLit supports 46 different languages.
“It’s an online resource, so it could also help the parents of these kids,” Omran says. “It could help all of them get their English up to speed.”
Omran says the recent convulsions in U.S. immigration policy have led to a great deal of fear in San Antonio.
“There are people here with a variety of concerns,” he says, “refugees, people with visas or student visas, or people—like me—with green cards.”
“Earlier this week, I had to explain the news to my daughter before she went to school,” Omran says. “She has friends from Iraq and Burma—and I wanted her to be sensitive to what they might be thinking and feeling.”
He encouraged his daughter to “be kind, be patient, be generous, and be a sister.”
Omran says she understood.
“We’re In a Global Village”
“It’s very important to have these different cultures represented in our educational spaces,” Omran says.
“Any person, no matter where they’re from, brings something to this world,” he says. “We’re in a global village—everyone is important and everyone has a story.”
“These people have lived through nightmares to get here,” he says. “This is so important to understand.”
Omran says he’s been advising members of his community to be careful while the U.S. sorts out its new immigration policies.
“I tell them to be careful,” he says, “and to avoid travel unless it’s essential.”
Omran’s Next Steps
Omran says his family has taught him a valuable lesson over the years.
“People might be able to take your wealth or home,” he says, “but they can’t steal your mind.”