Posted by Jeff from d53-106-196.try.wideopenwest.com (188.8.131.52) on Sunday, December 15, 2002 at 2:58AM :
School aims to avert tension
Students learn about Chaldean culture
By Kevin Brown / Special to The Detroit News
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Another program at West Bloomfield High, the Student International Club, deals with cultural differences. Jose Campos, who is from Mexico, talks with Jill Bachleda, who is of Polish descent.
Here is a cultural breakdown of West Bloomfield High's 1,850 students:
European-American: 30 percent.
Jewish-American, 26 percent.
Chaldean-American: 16 percent.
Asian-American: 13 percent.
African-American: 10 percent.
Muslim-American: 2 percent.
Armenian-American: 2 percent.
Latino-American: 1 percent.
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WEST BLOOMFIELD -- A war with Iraq could build tension in this community with a sizable Chaldean-American population, so educators and students have launched a preemptive strike to build understanding.
At West Bloomfield High School, 16 percent of the 1,850 students are Chaldean American and trace their heritage to Iraq.
Oakland County has the nation's largest concentration of people born in Iraq -- 1.3 percent of the population, or 15,434 residents, according to the 2000 census.
Some Chaldean Americans have relatives serving in the United States or Iraqi armies. Some who arrived recently lived through the 1991 Gulf War and may have lost a family member in the war.
In October, school staff and students met to discuss what might be done to build understanding of Chaldean Americans, and talked about easing Chaldean parents' fears about sending their kids to school.
"We talked about what would help the students in our school building better communicate feelings and concerns," said Sharkey Haddad, community liaison with the school district who is of Chaldean descent.
The talk sparked the creation of the West Bloomfield School-Community Mid-East Task Force. The 15-member group represents a range of religions and cultures, along with the police department, township government and student leaders.
The goal is to educate students, parents, school staff and the community about the Chaldean culture.
Student government president Micha Hickey is on the task force.
"It's helping people understand other cultures beyond the Mideast conflict. We're working hard to make sure diversity is tolerated."
Hickey said she has not seen students of different cultures hassling one another, and said that's important for parents to know.
"We can tell them your student is safe -- there's nothing going on that shouldn't be going on," she said.
Michael Kado, a Chaldean-American student, is on the task force. Like Hickey, he serves as a student ambassador, talking with students to dispel negative rumors about Chaldeans or other ethnic groups.
"No one wants a war," Kado said. "I have family back there still" -- aunts, uncles and cousins he's never met.
While Kado said he did hear negative comments about his ethnic background after the Sept. 11 attacks, he's heard no such comments in recent months.
"We just want to eliminate that. The key factor is education," he said.
In one recent incident at West Bloomfield High, Hickey said a student passed on a grandfather's prejudiced remark during a class session.
"Maybe we're not able to change those views entirely," she said. "Maybe we can still discuss it, and say here's what I believe. It's more of a common-ground approach."
Another task force member. the Rev. G. Patrick Thompson, president of the West Bloomfield Clergy Association, said that if war does break out, it's important to dispel misinformation that can cause tension between cultural groups.
"A lot of rumors get started during war about atrocities being committed. One of the things we emphasize is good reliable information," Thompson said.
Haddad has compiled a fact sheet on Chaldean Americans, their background and culture to be distributed by student ambassadors aiding the task force.
"We ask them to go out in hallways and classrooms to make sure there is no information that is going to create conflict," Haddad said.
"We encourage them to stand up when statements are made by their peers that are considered negative about one ethnic group against another."
Should war come, Thompson said the task force would seek to build understanding of West Bloomfield's Jewish and Muslim cultures.
Haddad said a typical misconception about Chaldeans is that they are Muslim. In fact, they are Catholic.
The task force convened its first meeting Nov. 13. Members suggested having Chaldean speakers discuss their concerns about a war with Iraq before various religious groups.
Other suggestions included getting the schools to communicate with Chaldean parents to alleviate fears and the creation of a Muslim fact sheet for public distribution to overcome misconceptions.
"I'm sure if war breaks out we'll have regular student meetings, maybe on a weekly basis," Haddad said.
"If there is a war, everybody is going to suffer in some way," Hickey said.
Kevin Brown is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.
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