CT: New Country, Same Innocence


Except for the occasional headscarf or burst of foreign speech, it could have been any group of American kids frolicking in the shade of a red maple on Clinton Avenue in Bridgeport. "Let's play dodgeball; there's enough people!" someone cried in barely accented English.

"Dodgeball! Dodgeball!" came the unanimous response, sparking off a lawless frenzy of tossing and ducking.

What sets these kids apart is that they and their parents come from places many Americans know only from the news: Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, to name a few.

They're part of a summer program run by the International Institute for refugee and immigrant children.

"They love to throw balls at each other," said Sweety Islam, the program's youth director, herself an immigrant from Bangladesh.

About 40 kids, 5 to 12 years old, are enrolled in the program, which meets four times a week. All are refugees or immigrants themselves, or their parents are, Islam said.

The program gives participants a chance to socialize while polishing useful skills such as reading, writing and speaking.

There are regular field trips to attractions such as Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo and the Bridgeport Bluefish at Harbor Yard. Participants also enjoy arts and crafts and lots of recreation.

Although the children come from a variety of backgrounds, they share common experiences, Islam said.

"They all have the same problem; they face trying to fit into the new country, and they get picked on by kids because they look different, and sometimes they're dressed by their parents," she said.

Adalet Kostrebic, 12, said he enjoys the program, particularly painting and drawing during arts and crafts.

Kostrebic, an assertive and broad-shouldered youth with blonde hair and bright eyes, said he arrived with his family from Bosnia in 2001, when he was 8.

He gave a brief account of the war that lashed his country in the 1990s and the subsequent strife that ultimately led his Muslim family to leave. But he was more focused on his future.

"I think I want to be a businessman. I want to be the boss," Kostrebic said.

Most of the participants in the program say they feel some connection to their home countries and several have visited since their families left.

Ronahi Saeed, 10, left Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, with her family in 1996, and said she was excited to return there in 2000 to meet her extended family.

It was hot, she said, and sometimes she slept on the roof where it was cooler.

"I just remember playing with friends [and] cousins," she said.(MORE)

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