The wail of air raid sirens on TV strikes terror into the heart of 17-year-old Pourya Khourassani of University High School, catapulting him back to the days when Iraqi missiles rained down on his native Tehran and filled the night air with screams, explosions and breaking glass.
For Khourassani’s Iraqi classmate Rashid, the footage of U.S. planes bombing Baghdad brings a paralyzing fear for the safety of his family, who huddle somewhere in the blacked-out Iraqi capital with dwindling food and water. He is so anxious over their fate that he doesn’t want his real name used.
Fear also stalks Rashid’s classmate Danny Arzani, whose relatives are scattered throughout Israel. As Iraqi SCUD missiles pummel his homeland, Danny says he is consumed by thoughts of death.
Throughout Los Angeles, students who escaped from brutal wars in their homelands are reliving almost unbearable experiences as they watch the Gulf War unfold in their living rooms. Teachers report that “A” students are failing tests. School counselors say children are bursting uncontrollably into tears, refusing to obey or pay attention.
Some students from the Middle East are buckling under a double burden: Terror that their families in gulf countries may be killed and taunts here from ignorant schoolmates.
“One boy, who is an Iranian Jew, was jeered by a group of kids who called him Saddam, says Helene Zaslove, who teaches English-as-a-second-language at University High School and works with immigrant students.
While students from war-torn countries feel an eerie sense of deja vu , apprehension about the war crosses all ethnic, social and economic lines.
Even those without any direct experience with war are affected, especially young children whose sensitive antenna pick up the fears of their elders and images they see on TV. For many, Saddam Hussein is the ultimate bogyman, whose international terrorist brigades may strike anywhere at anytime, snatching away their families and blowing up their homes and schools.
“They all watched CNN and “60 Minutes” and they were afraid there would be some kind of terrorist attack here,” says Becki Robinson, who teaches sixth grade at 1st Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights.
Recognizing that many students will need special counseling, the Los Angeles Unified School District last week ordered its staff to draw up ways to cope with student fears. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles County Department of Education sponsored an all-day conference to deal with mass hysteria among students and set up crisis teams.
Talks with students at University High School illustrate the breadth and gravity of emotional needs. The school has a disproportionately large number of recent refugees from the Middle East, as well as Koreans, Ethiopians, Romanian, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Mexican, Salvadoran and American-born students.
Psychologists say that while reactions will vary depending on children’s backgrounds, schools should brace for symptoms from mild apprehension all the way to full-blown panic attacks brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition common among those traumatized by war.
Time doesn’t necessarily heal these wounds: Psychological experiments show that air raid sirens can still trigger panic attacks among combat veterans 30 years later, says Louis J. West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine who has worked with former POWs, hostages and torture victims. Symptoms include vomiting, cold sweats, tremors, pallor and severe anxiety. Youngsters, who have fewer coping skills than adults, will be even more traumatized, he said.
“Schools need to identify those with major symptoms and make counseling and treatment available,” West added. He says teachers should take time to discuss the war and urge students to share their feelings, reassuring them that fears are not abnormal.
Some teachers and counselors have already incorporated the gulf crisis into their lesson plans, assigning essays on the war, urging students to discuss daily events to reassure them that their fears are shared by others.
Zaslove says she was deeply moved by the essays her students wrote last week as war broke out. When Shiva Ashourzadeh from Iran read her poignant composition, tears filled her eyes, leading classmates to reach out and comfort her.
“When I remember, I want to cry about those scary days when the bombs came down from the sky,” Shiva read. “Suddenly the people, the houses and everything was in darkness from all the smoke. After that, you could see the dead bodies on the streets, with children looking for their parents and parents looking for their children under collapsed buildings.”
Raymond Soleimani explained that he recently escaped Iran on camel and foot to avoid the draft, leaving his family behind. Others recounted nightmares.
“I dreamed the Marines came to my house and dragged me off to the war and my mom tried to stop them and she cried out, no, no,” says George Miranda, 17, who grew up near the border of Ecuador and Peru and witnessed atrocities by Peru’s Shining Path revolutionaries.
And out of fear, some unlikely alliances have emerged.
Lior from Israel and Rashid from Iraq have become friends, united by their mutual hatred of war and concern for relatives in their respective countries. The two now sit together and help each other with ESL lessons, said their teacher, Helen Fanteux.
“I’m afraid to say I’m from Iraq because maybe someone will hit me because they have a brother or father in the U.S. Army,” Rashid says.