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Torn by War : Emissaries: An eight-member troupe, Children of War, visits Glendale on its tour to acquaint U.S. students with the conflicts that trouble much of the world.

March 29, 1990|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Justina Endjala, a shy 17-year-old from Namibia, had just finished telling of life in her West African homeland--of police brutality, racial segregation, a century-old battle for independence. Rachel Richman, a white Glendale High School senior, was shaking her head.

"I basically know nothing about those countries," said Richman, 17. "It makes me mad that I don't know and that I'm not doing anything about it. But how are we supposed to relate to them if we're thinking, 'Am I going to get a car for my 16th birthday?' "

For Endjala and seven other youths who are part of a project called Children of War, now touring Los Angeles schools to educate and motivate their American peers, the question was typical.

It spoke, in a way, of the divided world faced by many of the students in their audiences last Friday at Glendale and Hoover high schools, where an increasing number of students from war-torn countries are trying to mix into American teen-age life.

The Glendale schools were two stops on a three-week tour by members of Children of War, a project sponsored by the Religious Task Force, an interfaith, New York-based group.

The task force, according to its literature, recruits and pays for teen-agers from troubled areas, including the United States, to share their experiences with American youth and promote grass-roots action and education about "social injustice."

Glendale's eight visitors made up one of two groups touring Los Angeles, speaking for free to student, church and community groups. Some had emigrated to the United States, some were simply visiting as part of the tour. One was a teen-age American mother from Boston.

After arriving at Hoover, where several hundred students filled an auditorium, they spoke in English about their lives.

Sanaa Al Okbi, 19, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who attends a Jewish university in Jerusalem, talked softly into the microphone, her voice choked by tears. "I feel very strongly inside that I'm Palestinian. But I can't say that in my country. It's very dangerous. But I have no choice. I study in school Jewish religion, Jewish language, Jewish history. I know their history better than I know my own.

"The land without people is our land," said Al Okbi, wearing a traditional Palestinian frock, a kofia . "I want peace for my people. I want freedom. I want to say I'm Palestinian without fear."

Asi Degani, a T-shirt- and sneaker-clad 18-year-old from Israel, put his hands in his jeans pockets and spoke calmly. "In six months I'll have to go into the Israeli Army, and I'll have to stand in front of kids 7, 8 or 9 who will throw stones or Molotov cocktails at me and I'll have to shoot them.

"The question," he said, as Al Okbi wept in her chair behind him, "is not whether I'll shoot back but whether I should be there in the first place. The answer, of course, is no."

Saroeum Phoung, 17, a refugee from Cambodia now living in Boston, talked of his harrowing escape from the Khmer Rouge regime. "It's hard for a kid like me to be born into this world where all I see, all I hear is people killing each other and a world screaming for help.

"My family spent five years living in a refugee camp in Thailand before we made it to the United States," he said. "When I got here, I thought it meant peace and freedom. But it didn't. Everyone says 'go back, we don't want you here.' This world has shown no mercy to me. Only pressure and pain. Now, I just want peace."

Like several hundred other students, Lisa Dohren, 18, a tall, blonde Hoover senior, sat captivated by the words. "I think it's really good that they, like, talked about it," she said. "You hear it on the news and you see it on TV but you never talk to people firsthand. It makes it real."

Reality is closer than some think. More than 65% of the district's 24,000 students are Asian, Latino, Filipino, Mid-Eastern or Pacific Islander, according to district figures. Many of those only recently emigrated from their homelands, said Alice Petrossian, director of intercultural education for Glendale schools.

"We have children from Vietnam who are boat people," Petrossian said. "We have children who were in the earthquake in Soviet Armenia. You could go to any school site and find children who are willing to share their stories."

One of Dohren's schoolmates, James Phan, listened to Phoung's speech and nodded in painful agreement. Phan, 17, came to Glendale in 1988 from a Cambodian refugee camp. His father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge; his mother, he said, died last month in the camp.

But Phan, a junior, said he does not share his experiences with his classmates at Hoover. And they usually don't ask.

"It's supposed to be a melting pot, but it's like oil and water," Jessica DiLullo, 17, a Hoover senior, said while standing near Phan.

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