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Girl Brings Kuwaiti Culture to O.C. Class

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stranded in Orange County when Iraq invaded her homeland, 11-year-old Sondos Dashti arrived at George White Elementary School last September knowing three words of English--tea, milk and water.

But Friday, Sondos chatted and giggled with her sixth-grade classmates, did a commercial for the class’s mock TV newscast, mugged for visitors and talked of how happy she will be to return to her home now that it is freed.

It seemed like a long time ago that Sondos and her family were stranded in Orange County when Iraq invited Kuwait Aug. 2. Seven months had passed, friends had been made, a language had been learned, and what started as a tragedy for an 11-year-old turned into something quite different.

Sondos’ friends, dressed in her honor in the Kuwaiti national colors of black, red, white and green, talked of how she has developed into both the class math whiz and clown and taught them much about her country and her culture. And the school honored her by presenting her with a school T-shirt and yellow roses at an assembly.

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“I think having her here in our class gave us a different perspective about the war,” said her teacher, Cheryl Barnes. “A lot of us have friends and family in the Persian Gulf. One of the children has a brother stationed there. But with Sondos here, for us the war wasn’t about our country going over to help another country. It was about our people going over to help one of our own people--Sondos.”

Sondos, her mother and two brothers came to California last July to visit Disneyland and her mother’s family, as well as get a two-month respite from Kuwait’s repressive summer heat. Left behind were Sondos’ businessman father--he later escaped and is now here--three sisters and a brother.

Iraq’s invasion left the family stunned, Sondos recalled.

“My mom was so sick and I was so sick,” Sondos said. “We would always cry.”

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“If we would have known what was going to happen, we would have stayed in Kuwait,” her mother, Kobra, said through a translator.

The family last talked to the other children still in Kuwait six weeks ago.

“Everybody is OK,” Sondos said.

Living with the mother’s sister in Laguna Niguel, the family decided to make the best of its situation. Sondos was enrolled at White, her 16-year-old brother Ali was enrolled at Dana Hills High School and the other brother went to the Midwest to attend college.

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A thin youngster with waist-length black hair, Sondos’ inability to speak English made communication with her teacher and classmates difficult at first.

“We did a lot of sign language and played a lot of charades,” Barnes said.

But English came relatively easy to Sondos, who also speaks Farsi, Iran’s official language, in addition to her native Arabic, and eventually, so did school. Barnes said Sondos excels in math tests and is writing essays.

“School is fun,” Sondos said. “I like everything we do . . . (especially) doing the news.”

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Twice a week the class acts out a television newscast.

Sondos started out reading recipes, but now occasionally anchors the show. Friday she did a mock commercial for “Sondos’ Shopping Center,” where consumers can “find the latest in stickers, folders and different Arabic stories.”

Her friends describe her as an energetic girl who makes them laugh. “She’s really funny and really smart,” classmate Samira Kapadia said.

“We are going to miss everything about her,” classmate Catherine Chock said.

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Sondos and her family plan to return to Kuwait within three months.

Times correspondent Frank Messina contributed to this report.


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