How The Middle East Prepared My Son For Middle School

by Nancy Bercaw
Originally Published: 

There he stands: My little boy on his first day of middle school, waiting for the bus at the end of our tree-lined lane on a glorious Vermont morning.

He’s smiling—no, he’s glowing. He’s practically bursting at the seams with self-confidence. There does not appear to be one iota of fear in his face, even though he’s about to walk into a new school with nary a pal in

sight. Not a single butterfly seems to be disrupting his tummy, though one did briefly sit on his head.

Why is my son cool as a cucumber? Because he spent last year in the Middle East.

Around this time in 2014, David and I were speeding to his first day at the American International School of Abu Dhabi (AISA) in the back of a taxicab. The temperature outside was 120 degrees as we swerved in and out of traffic on a street called Sultan bin Zayed the First.

David was quiet and pensive. He was about to walk through the guarded gates of a huge private schoo—serving grades K–12, its students representing more than 80 countries—and into a fifth-grade class that included a Sheikh’s nephew.

I frantically applied sunscreen to David’s face and arms. I could keep my son safe from the sun, but very little else. He’d be on his own inside those gates. Would it be like the United Nations in there, with everyone trying to see one another’s perspective? Or would the school grounds reflect the conflicts of the region at large?

Image courtesy Nancy Bercaw

The answer turned out to be a little of both. By day two, David learned that people don’t always like Americans, even at an American school. One of his fellow fifth-graders, a boy from Egypt, threatened to beat him up for being from the United States.

The episode led David to realize that the burden was on him to be likable. He’d have to overcompensate to undo the Uncle Sam stigma. Thus, he asked the vice principal not to punish the boy who had been threatening to him.

Image courtesy Nancy Bercaw

In late September, we moved into an apartment on Al Reem Island, and I started my new job in communications at Khalifa University. David would have to take the bus, which arrived at 6:25 a.m. for the one-hour commute. We waited together in front of the Boutik Mall between the glimmering high-rises known as Sun and Sky Towers.

For weeks, I had enjoyed watching all the other kids getting on their big yellow buses bound for places with names like GEMS Academy, the British International School, the Canadian School, the Indian School, the Moroccan School, the Lycée Français and others. And every day, I waved gleefully as David stepped onto bus No. 7 with a boy from Jordan until the day it dawned on me that David’s bus didn’t actually say the words “American International School.” A few hours later, I received the following email: The Embassy/Consulate wishes to notify the U.S. citizen community of a recent anonymous posting on a Jihadist website that encouraged attacks against teachers at American and other international schools in the Middle East.

My Canadian husband, director of Abu Dhabi’s New York Film Academy, and I discussed our options. Bad things happen everywhere, but we could mitigate this particular threat by leaving the UAE. While going home would be safer, we’d miss out on the opportunity to know people in this part of the world as fellow humans. We decided to remain.

Then came December 1, when American teacher Ibolya Ryan was stabbed to death in the public restroom at Boutik Mall on Al Reem Island by a woman wearing black gloves and a veiled niqab. The crime happened inside the very building where David and I waited for his school bus, across the hall from the grocery store where we shopped daily. Every single resident of Abu Dhabi was horrified: Muslim, Christian, American and Arab. The murderer was apprehended quickly, and the government vowed to step up efforts to keep the city safe for its global population.

Somehow, I continued to put my son on bus No. 7 in the days, weeks and months that followed.When David turned 11 in the spring of 2015, we celebrated with a small birthday party. The guest list included kids from Kenya, Russia, Lebanon, Australia, and notably, David’s pal Abdulrahman Asfari from Syria. What had his family endured to find safety here?

We managed to push through and complete the school year. One of our saving graces was Sharif, a driver-for-hire whom I called upon many times to pick David up after a school club event or a playdate. I knew David was safe in his care, and I can’t thank my friend Sarah enough for making an introduction that gave me peace of mind.

Sharif drove David and I to the airport when we left Abu Dhabi for good on the morning of June 12. Looking out his van window, David read the words on street signs and billboards in Arabic out loud to me as we zipped through the city one last time. But it wasn’t until my little boy bounced up the steps onto bus No. 21 bound for his American middle school in Vermont that I knew for sure we’d made the right decision to spend a year in the Middle East.

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