Making Her Place In a New Home

Enji enjoying the playground

Eight-year-old Enji Shukur arrived in the United States unable to speak English, without a wheel chair and having never been in school.

Today, less than two years later, she is speaking and reading the language of her adopted home, is a wiz on the iPad, and is learning to use her own power chair.

“She is really like a sponge, just picking up new things every day,” said teacher Julie Moore.  “She retains everything that she sees and hears.”

Enji is one of more than nearly 20 students in the Elizabeth Lee Black School who have recently emigrated from another country.  Most have language barriers to overcome in addition to the challenges posed by their disabilities.

“When an international student comes here, most receive speech communication therapy,” said speech-language pathologist Stephanie Rose Briggs. “In order to learn, we have to find a way for students to communicate.”Enji

For many students, admission to the Elizabeth Lee Black School is the first time that they will receive any educational or therapeutic services. “Many of the students are arriving from countries where there really aren’t any services for children with disabilities,” said Cindy Priester, education program coordinator.  “One child was basically tethered to a chair all day because his family did not know how to deal with his behaviors.  So our faculty has become really creative in addressing a variety of issues that some of the students have, in addition to responding to their learning problems and physical disabilities.” 

Many of the students’ families, including Enji’s, have endured long struggles to come to the United States.  Enji left Kirkuk, Iraq, with her mother and sister in 2011, and then lived for more than two years in a refugee camp in Turkey.  Enji, who has cerebral palsy, did not have access to school and did not have a wheel chair.

When her family was finally settled in Erie and she began at the Elizabeth Lee Black School, staff worked on getting her the equipment she needed to aid with mobility and reduce spasticity in her legs.   

They also used pictures and music to help her learn English.  “We sang a lot of things, which Enji loves, and she picked up a lot of language through music,” said Julie.  “We would ask her to repeat everything that we said, and even after hearing something jus she remembered words.  Now, she is speaking in full phrases and even sentences.”

Enji also listens intently to the communication devices that her classmates use, and is using the iPad to learn about the alphabet, numbers and other concepts.  She also receives speech, physical and occupational therapies every week. 

For many international students, opening up and adapting to a new culture takes time. Emily Landkrohn, a speech pathologist who has worked with Enji, said she started off shy, but now is “really blossoming with her language.”

Like all students, international children are the latest to benefit from the philosophy of the Elizabeth Lee Black School that says “if a child can’t learn the way we teach, we will teach the way a child can learn.” For faculty, this reflects their commitment to develop the most innovative, creative ways to make every student’s dream come true.