An international school in Oakland gives young immigrants and refugees their first shot at a “normal” teenage life.
When the lunch bell rings at 11:55 a.m., the central courtyard at Oakland International High School erupts with sound.

Teenagers with low-slung backpacks and spotless sneakers, restless from hours of morning classes taught in English, shout across the covered hallways in their native tongues—Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin, and Mam (a Mayan language spoken in rural Guatemala, the country with the greatest OIHS enrollment).

The nearly four hundred students enrolled at Oakland International High School have found their way here from over thirty countries, often escaping war, crushing poverty, and broken families in the process. Early on, a significant number of students came fleeing persecution in Myanmar. A more recent influx has come from Yemen, escaping civil war and famine. Today, the dominant student population comes from Central America; over 25% came to the United States as unaccompanied minors.

While their journeys have been varied, each has found a place in this unique public institution, where students come through the door speaking little or no English and leave prepared to take on college and careers.

But there is only so much protection from the world that the school can offer. For even the most confident, well-equipped students, a simple bus ride or a trip to the corner store can easily turn into an occasion for harassment.

Students describe being called a “terrorist” or “criminal.” Before reaching OIHS, some students were originally funneled into non-international public schools, where many of them describe feeling so hopelessly isolated that they begged their parents to let them drop out. On top of all that, all of the unaccompanied minors—as well as many of the students living with their families—have to work long hours after school and on weekends to help pay the rent.

Despite the threat of deportation and a fraught political environment that increasingly targets and dehumanizes immigrants, students at OIHS still manage to lead fairly normal lives, replete with the familiar teenage trials of crushes, college applications, bullying, and parental nagging. While the students know they will face tough odds in the world beyond, they still dream of becoming surgeons, lawyers, translators, and psychologists—in hopes of helping others. And, with the school’s support, they just might.

There is only so much protection from the world that the school can offer. For even the most confident, well-equipped students, a simple bus ride or a trip to the corner store can easily turn into an occasion for harassment.

Students describe being called a “terrorist” or “criminal.” Before reaching OIHS, some students were originally funneled into non-international public schools, where many of them describe feeling so hopelessly isolated that they begged their parents to let them drop out. On top of all that, all of the unaccompanied minors—as well as many of the students living with their families—have to work long hours after school and on weekends to help pay the rent.

Despite the threat of deportation and a fraught political environment that increasingly targets and dehumanizes immigrants, students at OIHS still manage to lead fairly normal lives, replete with the familiar teenage trials of crushes, college applications, bullying, and parental nagging. While the students know they will face tough odds in the world beyond, they still dream of becoming surgeons, lawyers, translators, and psychologists—in hopes of helping others. And, with the school’s support, they just might.

OIHS Student Population

Americas
Europe
North Africa & Middle East
Asia
Sub-Saharan Africa
The following stories of perseverance, hard work and triumph are told by two senior students at OIHS.
Chapter 1
The Boy Who Dropped Out of School at Nine, and Now Is Preparing to Graduate
Aparicio, 19
The following stories of perseverance, hard work and triumph are told by two senior students at OIHS.
The Boy Who Dropped Out of School at Nine, and Now Is Preparing to Graduate
Aparicio, 19

The cafeteria at OIHS sits behind a large, colorful mural where students have painted pictures of their favorite dishes from their home countries. At lunch, some disappear behind smartphone screens, while others form gossipy clusters. But 19-year-old senior Aparicio has an unusual way of spending the only free 40 minutes of his day. He tours the cafeteria’s round tables, checking in on younger students to “learn their story.” For a few minutes at a time, he tries to help his peers process past traumas they’ve experienced. He talks to them about things that happened to them in their native countries, or at the border. He wants to know how they’re adjusting to life in America.

“For a few minutes at a time, he tries to help his peers process the past traumas they’ve experienced. He talks to them about things that happened to them in their native countries, or at the border.”

For Aparicio, getting an education was never a given. By the time he was nine, he had dropped out of school to work in the cornfields of the Guatemalan highlands. When he wasn’t laboring in the fields, he was helping his grandmother at home. He’d never known his mother, and his father had left to find work in the United States when Aparacio was just eight. Though he speaks with a quiet frankness about his experience, he concedes that he “suffered a lot in Guatemala.” Still, when his father asked him to join him in the States, Aparicio had his doubts. When he arrived in Oakland at the age of 12 by plane (it was his first time setting foot on one), he was fluent only in Mam, a language indigenous to Guatemala. He spoke some Spanish, but no English. When his family enrolled him in a local Oakland middle school, it was Aparicio’s first time in a classroom in years. The fact that he couldn’t speak English made him feel even more alone. “I was scared when I went in middle school,” Aparicio says. “I saw that students, even Mexican students, they speak English. They didn’t want to speak Spanish. They didn’t want to help me…. I would tell my dad, ‘I want to go back home… I don’t want to stay in school here.’”

Aparicio has two jobs: a weekend position at a local butcher shop and an internship with a local television station.

Sometimes, just getting through seventh grade in the United States felt like an impossible hurdle. One day, he was caught distracting some classmates, and his teacher called his father, who threatened to pull him out of school and make him start working. Up until that point, Aparicio explains, “I didn’t understand how life works.” But the sobering incident was enough to overhaul his attitude. He pushed on to eighth grade, where he was awarded one of his class’s five medals for academic achievement. His father wasn’t able to make the ceremony due to work, but Aparicio knows he was proud. Now in his final year at OIHS, Aparicio has two jobs: a weekend position at a local butcher shop and an internship with a local television station. But it’s his unofficial role as a mentor for younger students that gives him the most meaning.

“It motivates me to learn about famous people who used their words to help people.”
Aparicio, on public speaking

While telling his story, Aparicio often clasps his hands when he speaks. He’s been studying public speaking, inspired by great American orators like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. “It motivates me to learn about famous people who used their words to help people,” he says. It’s that spirit that led a school counselor to push him to join All-City Council, an eight-person group of student leaders who help shape policy in Oakland’s school district. Despite being the only ESL student among the group, Aparicio took the lead on a citywide survey studying school-attendance rates.

“It was difficult because I was not good at public speaking,” he says. “But it was good for me.” He’s also introduced a new program at OIHS in the form of “community circles,” informal gatherings where students can address problems with the school and share their experiences. One day, he hopes to use his voice to shape policy at a higher level, fighting for a fairer allocation of funds and better pay for teachers.

Aparicio at his internship at KDOL studios.

Aparicio was chosen to join fellow student leaders on a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which pays tribute to the victims of lynching, slavery, and racial violence in America. While surprised to learn about the ugly history lurking in his new country’s past, he was also inspired by stories of sacrifice and perseverance. As soon as he got home, he says he found himself asking how these horrors could have been allowed to happen. “I was thinking, I need to do something,” he says, “I need to teach students about what I’d learned.”

“I don’t know why, in my life, there is always someone nice.”

Despite everything he’s been through, Aparicio is tireless in his gratitude. Miles away from the stereotype of the sullen American teen, he’ll look you in the eye and thank you for lending him a pen, sharing a story, or even just listening to him talk. “I don’t know why, in my life, there is always someone nice,” he says. “There’s always someone who encourages me.” What Aparicio may not realize is that, to many of his classmates and peers—that person is him.

Chapter 2
The Girl Who Crossed the Border Alone
Jabeht, 17
The Girl Who Crossed the Border Alone
Jabeht, 17

Sitting in the school library of Oakland International High School, Jabeht wears the badges of an American teenager: ripped jeans, glasses, and a mane of curly, dark hair she’s still learning how to style. Her eyes flick occasionally to the group of friends sitting nearby, waving to distract her. They’re waiting for her to head to a meeting for the prom committee, where she has been tasked with finding a DJ. When asked if she’s got someone special she’s going to the prom with, her friends burst into giggles. (That’s a “yes.”)

This was a journey with few comforts and no guarantees.

When she was 14, this scene would have been near-impossible for Jabeht to imagine. It was then that Jabeht first set out for a harrowing month-and-a-half-long trip across the border from Mexico with her 17-year-old brother, Sam, as her only companion. This was a journey with few comforts and no guarantees. When she tells the story of those days of running, hiding, and waiting, her hands start to tremble. “It was so hard,” she says in heavily accented English.

Jabeht’s journey began in Acapulco, a city known for its long stretches of pristine beaches, and for having the highest murder rate in Mexico. When she was six, her mother left their home country in search of work in the States, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Drug cartel and gang violence crept like a shadow over Jabeht’s childhood, but it wasn’t until her sister’s boyfriend was murdered that Jabeht’s parents decided to risk bringing her and her brother to the United States.

... they stayed inside a safe house for over a month, not once setting foot outdoors in fear of getting caught by police patrolling outside.

On their first try, the two were intercepted by Border Patrol and forced to return home. On the second, they were more cautious. They crossed the desert by foot, walking and running in turns, until finally, they reached the Mexican side of the border. Here, they stayed inside a safe house for over a month, not once setting foot outdoors in fear of getting caught by police patrolling outside. Then, when the moment was right, Jabeht and her brother Sam split up into two different cars to cross the border. By the time she reached the other side and arrived at a safe house in Houston, however, Jabeht learned that her brother had been detained. For two days, she slept on a couch in a stranger’s home, not knowing what would become of him. Finally, she met up with a family friend, and he took her by plane to California. (On his next try, Sam made it across the border—and now studies alongside his sister at OIHS.)

Jabeht is often homesick for Mexico, for her friends and the beaches and the pockets of comfortable familiarity that helped her forget the danger that surrounded her. Sometimes, she’s able to use the Oakland Portal—a mobile video chat studio outside her school, with partnering studios around the world—to connect with students her age in different parts of Mexico. Across a floor-to-ceiling video screen, they volley questions about their daily lives and education, alternating between English and Spanish. For Jabeht, it’s surreal to think of life going on there without her. And the harsh American discourse about immigrants isn’t lost on her, either. “They think … it’s easy to get here,” she says. “They say that all immigrants come to commit crime and violence. That’s definitely not true. It’s really hard for us to be here. We are not here because we want to be. We need it.”

“It’s really hard for us to be here. We are not here because we want to be. We need it.”

But Jabeht is finding reasons to love her new home, too. She loves to learn about her classmates and their cultures through dance: While Jabeht loves to dance cumbia, salsa, quebradita, and zapateado, she’s always encouraging her classmates to teach her moves from their home countries.

“I’m free.”
What Jabeht likes most about living in the United States.

The time spent with her international friends is pretty typical fare for an American teenager. They get together to watch “13 Reasons Why” and “Stranger Things” on Netflix (though she still watches telenovelas with her family). They gossip about relationships at fastfood restaurants. Since Jabeht was young, she’s always enjoyed doing her friends’ hair, and lately, she’s been recruiting her friends as test subjects for nail art. She hopes to go to community college to study cosmetology and polish up her English, before attending a four-year college. She dreams of graduating with a degree in psychology.

Jabeht is not one to fake a smile. She’s remarkably open about her past trauma and the loneliness she still sometimes feels today, even now that she’s found her circle. She’s forthright about what she misses about home, and what she doesn’t. She speaks candidly about what she’s survived, what she’s left behind, and what she risked in coming here—her friends, her home, her life. But when asked what she likes most about living in the United States, her answer comes quickly: “I’m free.”

Last names have been omitted for Aparicio’s and Jabeht’s safety and privacy.

The mission of Oakland International High School is to provide a quality alternative education for recently arrived immigrant students, in English-language acquisition, and in preparation for college. Learn more here.
Photography by Barbara Kinney
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