Soraya Fallah stepped up to a podium in the Anaheim Convention Center and spoke for the voiceless.
Her subject: children with disabilities from Middle Eastern, North African and Southwest Asian backgrounds. Many of them grew up in war zones, in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Sudan and Syria. Some are born with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Other injuries and issues were born of explosions and gunfire.
When these children come to the United States, they are frequently placed in special education classes with students — and, often, teachers — whose cultures and experiences are far different from their own. Even students from Middle Eastern, North African and Southwest Asian backgrounds born in the U.S. face language and cultural barriers to a quality education, Fallah said.
Before Fallah ’17 (Ed.D., Educational Leadership and Policy Studies) began her research at California State University, Northridge, there was almost no information to guide these students’ teachers. The children represent a population so invisible it has never been properly counted. Fallah had to coin an acronym for the region: MENASWA (Middle Eastern, North African and Southwest Asian).
On Aug. 20, Fallah spoke at the Multicultural Education Conference in Anaheim. Addressing teachers, teachers-in-training, education professors and school administrators from around the country, she provided tips on how to reach these students and help unlock their potential.
“If we don’t have any information about a population, how can we hear them?” Fallah said. “How can we craft a plan to help these individuals? If you don’t know where they come from, how can we ask a question to help them? Their unique situation warrants an understanding by all educators who may work with them and their families.”
By helping Fallah publish and present her findings, CSUN is amplifying a voice others have tried to silence. Fallah has spent her life speaking up for children’s rights, women’s rights and human rights in the Middle East, and she was even imprisoned in Iran for her political activism. As she reaches an audience of educators and policy makers with the power to make change, her CSUN dissertation, Giving Voice to an Invisible Population, could positively impact the lives of children across the planet.
Finding Her Voice
Fallah, 50, has seen firsthand the physical and emotional tolls that war takes on soldiers and civilians alike.
She was born the third of seven children in Baneh, a small city in a mountainous area of northwestern Iran on the Iraq border. Baneh is part of the Kurdistan region, which also includes parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Fallah’s Kurdish heritage put her at odds with the Iranian government in the 1980s and 1990s, when she was a teen and young adult, as Kurdish forces clashed with the Iranian government.
In the 1980s, Iran was also at war with Iraq. When she was 21, her younger brother was wounded during his mandatory service for the Iranian army. Shrapnel is still lodged in his legs. He dealt with emotional scars as well.
“A child should not have to lose friends at a very young age. I lost many of them,” Fallah said. “I also saw my family grieve the loss of close relatives, neighbors and friends. A child should not be incarcerated, but by the age of 14 I had already been arrested and had witnessed many of my friends tortured and imprisoned. Some people I knew disappeared, and I still don’t know their fates.”
Facing the choice of wallowing in depression over her circumstances or fighting to change them, Fallah fought. She was first arrested for writing graffiti on a wall, “Land belongs to those who work on it.” There would be other arrests, then interrogations and torture.
Still, she worked to make her world a better place. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in international relations and law, both from Tehran Azad University. She married Michael Moradian in 1985, at age 18 (and kept her maiden name). Her daughter, Cklara, was born in 1987, and her son, Zaniar, in 1993. (Cklara Moradian is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work at CSUN.)
It wasn’t safe for them in Iran. Her family was granted political asylum, first in Azerbaijan and then in Denmark. In 1997, they moved to Los Angeles.
“From a very young age, my husband and I wanted to come to the United States,” Fallah said. “There are so many opportunities. We wanted to pursue our education and be free. We wanted to raise our voices about what we believe.”
Fighting with Education
It would be years before she returned to school. Her time, mental energy and economic resources were taken up by her two children and activism through organizations such as Amnesty International, which often led her to travel to conferences across the globe. She also made a career in social work.
As her children finished up their own bachelor’s degrees, in 2014 Fallah applied and was accepted to numerous doctoral programs. CSUN, with its emphasis on education policy and practical research, was her first choice.
“I decided to make education something in my hand I fight with,” Fallah said. “So much of a child’s future is shaped by the quality of schooling they receive. If you educate those children or help those children get educated, that’s the best way to help.”
Her professors at CSUN, including Wendy Murawski, chair of CSUN’s Center for Teaching and Learning, first helped her narrow down her research focus to a manageable topic.
“She wanted to save the world,” Murawski said.
Fallah gathered data through a survey that was open to current U.S. residents, age 18 and older, from a MENASWA background, related to students with special needs or disabilities. The survey was sent to 8,000 random households, 123 schools and 200 organizations located in cities known to have large MENASWA populations. She promoted her work on a blog and on social media. Members of her target communities referred their friends and family.
Fallah was sensitive to the historical and ongoing conflicts in the region, stating in bold-faced type that her study was intended to be inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups.
At the beginning of the project, Fallah and her professors thought they’d be happy to receive 100 valid surveys. She received 267. She heard from families of children with autism, physical disabilities caused by war and emotional issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. She also interviewed 13 families, conducting in-depth interviews in person or by phone, giving her subjects a chance to get comfortable and open up about the challenges they’d faced.
“One of the grandmas cried and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to talk about my grandchild,’” Fallah said.
Fallah’s son, Zaniar, a professional in computational statistics and statistics research, helped her analyze her study results and ensure its integrity.
“I was really impressed with the level of support not only of her immediate family but also her community,” Murawski said. “It’s very clear people are interested. That speaks to both Soraya herself and to the population. They’re interested in having a voice. They really want to make sure their children are getting the best services they possibly can.”
Fallah’s research uncovered surprises. The U.S. Census currently does not have an ethnic category for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent — these individuals are typically counted as “white.” When Fallah conducted a pilot survey almost two years ago, 95 percent of participants were in favor of being counted under their own ethnic category (which is likely for the 2020 Census). But in recent months, given the shifting political climate in the U.S., attitudes have changed and Fallah’s subjects no longer want their own category.
“It’s safer to be under the white category,” Fallah said.
Other key study findings: As survey respondents’ income and English proficiency dropped, so did their families’ satisfaction with American schools. It’s hard to ask for services when you don’t speak the language, Fallah said. There are also cultural stigmas in some MENASWA families that prevent families from asking for help.
Now that Fallah has conducted in-depth research about MENASWA students with disabilities, she is working with CSUN to help tell those stories.
CSUN will publish her 340-page dissertation, and her professors will help her submit excerpts of her research to peer-reviewed journals. Her professors have helped her apply to present at conferences, and provided a coach who helped her prepare for her presentations and the questions she might receive. Currently, Fallah and Murawski are co-authoring a book chapter already accepted for a book on Social Justice and Education.
Fallah’s work has been covered by media outlets in different languages throughout the world. She was even contacted by the mayor of an Iraqi province who believed her work could benefit students there.
The Anaheim conference gave her the chance to provide educators with steps for more effective work with MENASWA families, such as recognizing specific issues and increasing cultural understanding. Her presentation will directly improve the lives of students in classes across the country, and education professors who heard her speak will also be able to share her tips with classes full of future educators.
“Educators should know where those kids come from,” Fallah said. “They should know: what is the history and story of their life when they arrived in this country? Maybe the child has no education, maybe he has PTSD, maybe he doesn’t know English. I know it’s hard, but we can start learning — we cannot ignore those experiences.”