SELMA, Calif. – Amal Qasem pulls up a mathematics app on her phone that she programmed, then displays the computer coding that went into its creation — a sequence of data that resembles a line of colorful puzzle pieces.
She understands this complicated computer conversation in cyberspace exceptionally well although she’s just 15 years old and still learning to speak English.
Amal finished making her app — which earned a perfect score in her computer science elective class at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Selma — days before her peers.
In another class called Newcomers, where Amal is learning to speak and write in English, the eighth-grader fittingly sits at a desk in front of a large poster of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Amal was at the top of her class in Yemen before fleeing civil war in her home country and coming to Selma in December 2017. She’s continuing to excel in the United States with help from teacher Efraín Tovar.
She’s become a success story for what is possible with technology and passion.
In Newcomers, she’s learning English alongside 20 other students born in six different countries who speak Spanish, Arabic, Punjabi, Hindi and Zapotec as their first languages.
Tovar communicates with them with help from translation software and literacy applications. Educators from other schools frequently visit his classroom to watch his innovative approach to teaching. He said he’s the only Google-certified innovator, trainer and administrator in California to work with newcomers.
They attend Newcomers instead of a traditional middle school English class.
Amal’s computer science class is also going a long way in helping her learn English.
“Because of the success that Amal has had in computer science, as well as other newcomers, that has actually helped her self-esteem in being able to take risks,” Tovar said, “in being able to collaborate with other students and communicate with other students, which ultimately is my goal.”
Translator Sally Alamri, a district employee who is also a friend of the Qasem family, said that Amal has “always loved apps.”
“She’s always on her phone. She’s always learning about different programs in Arabic. So now she was able to transfer that knowledge into her computer science class.”
Amal says Tovar “helps me a lot.”
The app she built through MIT App Inventor displays math questions and answers, telling students whether they answered a math equation correctly or not.
Tovar said Amal’s work in computer programming is the equivalent of her learning another language.
She came to the U.S. with her father and four younger sisters while her mother and three older sisters remain in Djibouti. They fled to the African country because there was no working embassy in Yemen. Her older sisters and mom face a different review process than the younger girls in the family.
Amal’s father, Fadhl, has been working at a Selma market to support both households. He previously worked in shipping for the Lay’s potato chip company in Saudi Arabia because he couldn’t find work in war-torn Yemen.
Alamri said Amal has “taken on a mother role with her four younger sisters. She’s an old soul. She feels so responsible for her younger sisters.”
He is very proud of Amal. She is “very smart,” he says with a smile. “Number one, A-plus.”