Noor Hezam Bridges a Cultural Gap

An Arabic-speaking teaching paraprofessional from Yemen takes new families under her wing at Ruby Bridges.


Noor Hezam is a teacher’s aide at Ruby Bridges Elementary School who is connecting Arabic-speaking kids and parents and others.

Photo by Chris Duffey

In the Ruby Bridges Elementary School cafeteria, a little girl runs up to Noor Hezam and gives her a big hug around the waist. The first-grader is one of Hezam’s students who arrived in the United States at the end of 2015 school year. “She came from Mongolia,” Hezam says. “She knew no English. I taught her her ABCs. Now she is talking and reading.”

Pride and hard work are the core values that drive Hezam, who has worked as a teacher’s aide with English language learner students at Ruby Bridges since 2012. She helps students of all backgrounds learn to read, write, and talk in English. She also helps acclimate families, particularly Arabic-speaking ones, to school life, translating both school and district materials into Arabic, leading a California PTA workshop called School Smarts, and serving as a liaison to families in the community. Hezam was honored in February as an employee of the month by the school district.

“Noor is a superstar,” says Claudia Medina, the Alameda Unified School District’s coordinator for family involvement and community engagement. “She has helped us do outreach and support to our Arabic-speaking community. ... She goes out of her way to make personal connections, pay out of pocket to create experiences for families, stay late to help translate for a family in need.”

The West End’s Ruby Bridges Elementary is one of the district’s most diverse schools, with nearly one-third of the school’s more than 550-plus children learning English as a second language. The school’s 54 Arabic-speaking children come from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and Algeria, but the majority, says Hezam, are from Yemen like her. Most of the Arabic-speaking mothers (there are about 150 Arabic-speaking students districtwide) have little or no formal education and limited or no English, making it difficult for them to communicate with teachers or other staff, to understand how schools operate, and to support their children’s learning. Children’s fathers more often do speak English, says Hezam, but many work long hours to support their families. And in keeping with her religious upbringing, Hezam is not comfortable speaking to men. “I keep my culture,” she says. She recently worked with the office manager to build a list of Arabic-speaking mothers, and so now, when the school uses the auto-dialer to call home with announcements, she records the message in Arabic, and it goes directly to the mom’s cellphone numbers.

Hezam (students call her “Mrs. Noor”) is dressed in an elegant black cloak called an abaya (a balto in Yemen), decorated above the wrists, and a purple and white patterned hijab pinned with a gold pin against her right cheek. She works in a small, converted room that was used for PTA storage until she made over into a tidy, brightly decorated mini classroom. Hezam describes herself as a quiet, shy person, preferring to eat lunch in her room, using the time to check in with her older children (Ibrahim, 28; Yousef, 26, and Anwar, 24) or call home to her extended family back in Yemen. “When it is noon here, it is 10 p.m. in Yemen,” she says. “So they know to expect me.”

She breaks into big smiles when she mentions her achievements or the achievements of her students. She says she feels most American in the way she is organized, prompt, committed to excellence, and doing her very best. “I like everything to be just so,” she says, explaining how she organizes her work space, plans her lessons with students, and the ordered way in which she approaches her translations. She recently translated the California PTA’s School Smarts curriculum to Arabic. It was a three-month job to translate the 72-page handbook, and AUSD was the first district in the state to offer the curriculum to parents in Arabic.

Hezam is different from many of the other Arabic-speaking moms in her community in that she has a college degree, is fully bilingual, and was a teacher and then later a vice principal in Yemen. She began teaching right out of high school, earning a bachelor’s degree while working full time and raising her children. She is the first in her family to go to college. “My mom couldn’t read or write; my dad could just a little bit,” she says. “So I taught myself. Education is my life.”

She moved to the United States with her family in 2006, became a citizen in 2009, and moved to Alameda from San Francisco in 2011.

Hezam is particularly grateful to retired Ruby Bridges Principal Jan Goodman for recruiting her to work at the school when she first moved into the district, putting her second youngest daughter, Sarah, into third grade, and youngest son, Omar, into kindergarten.

“Ms. Goodman gave me a nickname, ‘The Bridge’,” she says. “The moms call me and I go and translate or make an appointment with the teacher or email the teacher, back and forth, back and forth, between the teachers the office and the moms.” Hezam says she is helping others do what she did when she first came to the United States, learning how to support her five children in schools in an unfamiliar culture and language.

“She is excellent at recruiting parents and getting them involved and helping them understand the school system,” said Principal Cheryl Wilson. “I’m not sure what we would do without her, to tell the truth.”

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