Students representing Afghanistan wave flags in the air.
Students representing Afghanistan wave flags at the Parade of Nations, showcasing the cultural diversity of Colonies North Elementary School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A Colonies North Elementary teacher stepped up to the school’s podium on Wednesday morning and announced Saudi Arabia. A group of children, some wearing traditional clothing, others in graphic tees and shorts, approached the stage at the front of the cafeteria, flaunting the green Saudi Arabian flag, which bears a white Arabic inscription and sword.

The Saudi Arabian students’ peers cheered from their seats on the white linoleum floor, waving their own flags, as the Middle Eastern country’s national anthem played over the speaker system.

Eman saleh Alaslani rose from the back of the room to wave and blow kisses at her daughter Alma. Beaming, Alaslani recorded a video of Alma as she followed the flag, participating in the school’s Parade of Nations event, which recognizes family’s countries of origin and celebrates students’ diverse cultures.

“I feel like we are in our country,” said Alaslani, who came to the United States five years ago. “I feel like we belong here, but we have our own country, too. I feel something inside me, and I don’t know what it is, but I feel so happy.”

Alma is one of nearly 300 students who participated in the day’s program, principal Norma Farrell said. Forty-one countries and 36 languages are represented among the school’s 626 students. About 40 percent of students are English-language learners.

Colonies North is one of two Northside ISD “newcomer” elementary schools where the district places refugees and asylum seekers to start their education in their new country. Students are assigned to newcomer classes that help them adjust to what may be unfamiliar elements of a U.S. education, Director of Bilingual and ESL Education Victor Raga told the Rivard Report.

Teachers work with newcomer and local students year-round to drive home how important acceptance is at a campus where many of the students come from different backgrounds, Farrell said.

On Wednesday, that emphasis on acceptance culminated with the Parade of Nations, which unfolded much like the opening ceremony at the Olympics and has become an annual tradition over the past decade.

This year, the school added a new element, inviting parents from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran to speak to students about their home countries.

Shahram Ebad Fard Zadeh, who came to the United States from Iran, told the audience about his country’s culture, at times joking about misconceptions.

Colonies North Elementary School principal Norma Farrell speaks with Shahram Ebad Fard Zadeh after the program.
(From left) Colonies North Elementary School Principal Norma Farrell speaks with Shahram Ebad Fard Zadeh after the program. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In Iran, the main religion is Islam, Ebad Fard Zadeh said, but he is part of a smaller religion called Mandaeanism.

“I would like you to know a little about [our religion] because you are our new neighbor,” he said. “We are not allowed to convert anyone to our religion. If you are not born Mandaean, you cannot be Mandaean religion, so you are all safe. We are not going to knock on your doors and no advertising.”

Ebad Fard Zadeh’s son is in the fifth grade and has been at Colonies North for seven years. The Iranian father has been to the parade three times, and said every year he is struck anew by how the event illustrates the harmony in his community of diverse voices and faces.

“I view the people as a garden, and when you get all the people together, it is like you look at the garden with the beautiful different flowers,” Ebad Fard Zadeh said. “When you get different humans, different races, different cultures, when you look at them together as a one [group], we can show that we live together in peace. Same as the flower – they are a different color or different smells or different anything, but together they make a beautiful garden.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.