It can be hard moving to the U.S. from another country, especially for a teenager. Imagine taking a high school test on Shakespeare when you barely speak English – while trying to make new friends, graduate, get a good job and help your family get out of poverty.
About 15 percent of children in Georgia’s immigrant families were born in other countries, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Quite a few who came here as teenagers live in DeKalb County and attend Clarkston High School.
In some ways, students at Clarkston High School are like other teenagers. They hurry between classes with books in hand – chatting about homework and dating. But, these teens stand out because they’re from about 50 different countries. They go to school in one of the nation’s most diverse ZIP codes, and about two-thirds of them speak a language other than English at home.
Esau Gonzalez's background is fairly typical at this school. He says he grew up in the south of Mexico and came to Georgia when he was 16. Gonzalez didn’t want to leave his family, but the area where he’s from – on the border with Guatemala – is dangerous.
“They shot [at] me. I almost died at that time,” he says. “It was drug dealers, mafia. If you don’t respect mafia people in Mexico, they going to kill you and they going to do something, you know? It’s horrible.”
The people who shot at Gonzalez missed. The time they shot at his father, they killed him.
Gonzalez is one of 12 children, and all his siblings who were old enough to leave Mexico did. Gonzalez didn’t want to move 2,000 miles from his Mom, but he eventually followed. He came to Georgia to live with his brother, Abel Gonzalez, who was just 21 years old.
Gonzalez understood so little English he wanted to drop out of school. But, his big brother encouraged him to stay and be the first in the family to get a college degree. Gonzalez still can recite his brother’s pep talks: “Later on, you gonna have a better life. It’s going be good for you," Gonzalez recalls his sibling saying. "Your kids [are going to] be in a better place. You [are] going to a better college. It’s a lot of stuff in the United States, and you just gotta work hard.”
By the last week of his senior year, he has two and half years of study in his second language behind him. Just his final exams stand between him – and his diploma.
Typical for Immigrant Teens Here
As kids shuffle off to class, Amy Jaret settles into one of her student’s desks. She leads Clarkston’s program to help students with their English, so she knows Esau Gonzalez's story is typical of immigrant teens.
“A very high percentage of my students write about their desire to have a sustainable job with a reliable salary so that they can care for their parents in their old age. And, they explain quite simply, 'It’s what my parents did for me, and so, of course, I would do that for them in return,'” she says.
That's not all these kids have in common with Gonzalez. Jaret says, “So many of our students have experienced losses among their family members – either immediate family or extended family – that is hard for sort of a typical American, I think, to really wrap their head around.”
Clarkston High School students are from countries like Somalia, Iraq and the Republic of the Congo. Many have seen violence.
A few hours later, the school day ends. A week later, so does the school year. That finds Gonzalez at his brother’s auto shop on Memorial Drive. It’s a small garage with tires stacked to the ceiling.
While Gonzalez changes a spare out front, his brother, Abel Gonzalez, steps inside. He works at other car shops Monday through Saturday but has saved enough to work here – at his own business – on Sundays. He's busy, but he makes time for church and those pep talks for his little brother. Abel Gonzalez recalls: “I told him, ‘The other people can do it. We can do it too.’ I told him, 'Barack Obama is president. Why you can’t do it?'”
Back out front, Esau Gonzalez is still changing that tire. He pauses to talk about graduation last Friday. School records show only about half of each year’s seniors make it across that stage, so … did he?
“Yeah,” Gonzalez says. “I feel better, and I feel good because now I’m done with one goal, and I’m going to start with another goal. And, I know it’s coming, big stuff in my life.”
So, what's happened since then, now that a few months have passed? Esau Gonzalez wants to go to Georgia Perimeter College and is applying for financial help, Abel Gonzalez says. For now, Esau Gonzalez works alongside his brother a few days a week to learn about car repair and to save for college.