Thafir Elzofri in his classroom at Nystrom Elementary in Richmond. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When Thafir Elzofri teaches fourth grade at Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond, he rarely stands still.

There are 31 kids in his class, each with different strengths and needs, and Elzofri wants to make sure they understand his lessons. So he is light on his feet as he travels from desk to desk checking on his students’ work, offering a suggestion here, a correction there, and encouragement whenever possible.

Elzofri wants to inspire his students, many of whom have parents with limited education, English speaking skills, and money. Positive and instructive messaging is all around. “What Should My Desk Look Like?” asks one hand-colored sign. It has a diagram of where students should place their homework, current assignment, water bottle and hands. The “Classroom Rules” poster has six instructions: Only one person talks at a time, be respectful, do your best (it’s enough!), be responsible, be safe and be prepared.

Elzofri is part of the newest Teach for America cohort in the West Contra Costa Unified School District and this fall is his first full-time placement. Teach for America gave him six weeks of training in the summer, which included classroom time, but Nystrom is his first full-fledged teaching job.

The task is daunting, but Elzofri, 22, a Berkeley native, is determined to make a difference in his students’ lives. It’s like returning a favor. He attended a poorly-resourced elementary school in Oakland that didn’t have any computers, where art and music were taught once a month and where 100% of the students received a free lunch. Then he transferred to a school in Berkeley where he found teachers and mentors who encouraged him, challenged him, and supported him. As the second oldest son of parents who emigrated from Yemen and who didn’t finish high school, Elzofri needed guiding hands to help him excel.

He flourished at Willard Middle School and at Berkeley High. The assistance he received there, as well as from two community programs, Y-Scholars Program and Berkeley Community Scholars, not only gave Elzofri self-confidence but was essential in helping him attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut, considered one of the top colleges in the country. He graduated in May.

“Thafir was always willing to learn new things, was always willing to step in,” said Jose Herrera Cruz, the academic manager for Y Scholars, housed at the YMCA-PG&E Teen Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, right across Civic Center Park from Berkeley High School. “Thafir was the person who was here right after school until 8 o’clock or when I would have to kick him out.”

Elzofri’s completion of college reflects the long path his family has taken to succeed as immigrants. His grandfather first came to the U.S. in the early 1970s, part of the wave of Yemeni men who started arriving in the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1950s and early 1960s to pick grapes and other fruits. At one point, demand for labor was so strong that growers were flying Yemenis over by the planeload,” according to a 1985 article in the Los Angeles Times. That triggered “a chain migration that culminated in some 5,000 Yemenis laboring in the fields and orchards,” according to an article in Middle Eastern Resources Online.

After working in the Central Valley for a few years, Tawfiq Elzofri moved to the Bay Area to work in a friend’s grocery store, said his grandson. Tawfiq Elzofri eventually saved enough money to rent McGee’s Market in Berkeley. He later took over the W & L Market at 54th and Adeline streets in Oakland, one of a number of stores he would own or operate around Northern California. His son Saleh, who came from Yemen in the late 1980s, helped in the store. He had to leave high school in San Leandro to do so.

Owning grocery stores (as well as taxi cabs) is a cornerstone of Yemeni life in the Bay Area. Running them is often a family affair. Grandparents, parents and children all take part in working the cash register, stocking the shelves, and interacting with customers. Often, the families live in apartments above the stores, according to Elzofri.

There are no firm numbers on how many Yemenis and Yemeni-Americans live in the East Bay, but observers believe it’s in the thousands. Yemenis started to arrive in the Bay Area in the 1970s and were the third-largest group of newcomers to Oakland public schools in 2018, according to the Oakland Unified School District. The Berkeley Unified School District says it has many Arab-speaking students but does not do a breakdown of country or background of origin.

Immigration has been severely restricted, however, since Jan. 27, 2017, the day President Trump issued an executive order banning most people from seven countries from traveling to the United States. That includes people from Yemen, as well as from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. The proxy war that has been raging in Yemen in recent years has also made it difficult to travel.

The community is close-knit, according to Elzofri. One center of activity is the mosque Masjid Abu Bakr, on 62nd and Market streets in Oakland, right by the Berkeley border. The mosque, named after the prophet Muhammed’s successor, was founded in 1983 and serves more than 100 families who gather to pray as well as to send their children to Arabic and religious classes. Another popular community activity is soccer. A group plays every Tuesday night at the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex in West Berkeley.

“Every Yemeni knows each other,” said Elzofri. “I can’t go anywhere in the Bay without someone knowing me and vice versa. It’s such a tight-knit community.”

That makes for a broad support group, but it also means one has to be careful not to do anything that reflects badly on the family’s honor, he said. Family reputation is a centerpiece of Yemeni culture.

“There is no room for error,” said Elzofri. “Anything you do, whether positive or negative, reflects on your family.”

One indication of the cohesion of the East Bay Yemeni community came during court hearings during the trial of Amer Alhaggagi earlier this year. The 24-year-old Yemeni-American man, who lived in Oakland but who had attended Berkeley High, pleaded guilty to providing “material assistance” to ISIS by setting up some email accounts for the terrorist organization. Alhaggagi also told an FBI agent who was masquerading as an ISIS sympathizer that he intended to detonate bombs and set fires near UC Berkeley and in the hills to kill as many people as possible. He is now serving 15 years in federal prison.

Yemeni men standing around hallway
Members of the Yemeni community came out in large numbers in February to offer support to a man accused of being a terrorist. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

From the time of Alhaggagi’s first court appearance to his sentencing, dozens of members of the Yemeni community came to support him and his family. They believed that Alhaggagi had acted stupidly, even illegally, but did not think he was an actual terrorist. The Yemeni men and Yemeni women, dressed in abayas and hijabs, would arrive at the federal courthouse in San Francisco early and stay late. At lunch, they shared home-cooked food. The community issued a statement promising the judge that they would oversee Alhaggagi more closely upon his release from prison and would work to ensure that he would not get in trouble again. The community turnout was so impressive that the federal judge remarked favorably about it from the bench.

“We are like a family,” said Ali Kassim, who owns J & B Fine Foods Market at Harmon and Adeline streets in Berkeley. The Alhaggagi family lived for a time in an apartment above his store. “We are trying to keep the community together. We don’t want (our children) to lose their culture.”

Growing up, Elzofri lived in an apartment above one of his family’s stores with his parents, older brother, younger brother and two younger sisters. From an early age, he straddled two worlds — the collectivist world of Yemeni culture and the individualist world of the United States. Elzofri attended elementary school right across from the store, and when school was finished he would return home where he would juggle doing his homework with helping in the store. His parents didn’t pressure him to excel in school, but they always wanted him to go further in school than they had.

“My mom has always said, ‘We want to get you out of the store,’” said Elzofri.

When his parents, with no high school diplomas, could no longer help him and his older brother Waddah with their homework — and didn’t think Oakland schools were providing sufficient guidance — they applied for their children to transfer to the Berkeley Unified School District. Elzofri started sixth grade at Willard in 2008. From the start, his Berkeley education was a wakeup call on how insular his life had been previously, he said. In his first week, his history teacher presented a timeline of some of the major events of the previous 30 years. Elzofri had never heard about 9/11, when Al Qaeda hijackers flew planes into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people. His mother, Afrah, who stayed home as much as possible after 9/11 to evade anti-Muslim bigotry, had not told him about the day. She had wanted to protect him, Elzofri said.

By the time he was a junior at Berkeley High, Elzofri knew he wanted to go to the East Coast to college — a step not that common in a community where many first-generation Yemeni-Americans stay in California, he said. “I’ve always been a curious kid,” he said. “I’ve always imagined myself leaving because I was always in this restrictive environment.”

That was when he joined Y Scholars, a college readiness program for first-generation and low-income students. It was a transformational experience, said Elzofri. Not only did Y Scholars give him a quiet place to do his homework, but the counselors helped him write his college essays and prepare his applications. Many of the counselors at Y Scholars were also first-generation Americans and they understood Elzofri’s college ambitions and cultural conflicts.

“They had a genuine interest in what I wanted to do,” he said. “At home, they couldn’t understand what I wanted to do.”

The program also helps youths navigate a world that might be unfamiliar to them because of their family backgrounds, said Cruz, the program’s academic coordinator. So instruction includes email etiquette, how to write formal letters and applications, how to develop a positive reputation or “brand,” how to do public speaking, and more.

Elzofri’s older brother had gone to UC Merced and when the family drove him to school his mother cried in the back seat. That worried Elzofri. He wanted to go to Wesleyan all away across the country. How hard would his mother cry if he went that far, he wondered?

While most families would be proud that their child got into such an excellent school, the collectivist nature of Yemeni culture made that a complicated question, said Elzofri. Since family means everything, success would be a positive reflection on the family, he said. But it meant leaving the family behind, which could be seen in a negative light.

“I am in between two worlds,” said Elzofri. “It felt selfish to go to Wesleyan.”

Finances were an issue, too. While Wesleyan offered Elzofri a generous aid package, it would be expensive to fly back and forth across the country for four years.

Enter Berkeley Community Scholars, formerly known as the Berkeley Community Fund. The organization offered Elzofri a four-year scholarship that would cover his travel expenses and other incidentals. They also paired him up with Matt Gregory, a mentor who could help Elzofri navigate the social and academic challenges of college. There were so many new situations: Elzofri had never been on a plane ride by himself before. He had never lived by himself. He wasn’t sure what an informational interview was, even though he had one scheduled at some point. When Elzofri was contemplating changing his major from math to government, Gregory was there to listen and offer advice.

(See the video below that Berkeley Community Scholars made about Elzofri):

At Wesleyan, Elzofri threw himself into as many new situations as possible, joining numerous clubs and even inviting the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen to give a talk about the proxy war that was devastating the country. But the biggest leap he took, the one furthest from the community in which he grew up, was a foray into standup comedy. While he had been shy in high school, he had always written down jokes that got a laugh from his close friends. By the time he left high school, he had three notebooks full of jokes.

So in his first year, Elzofri overcame his nerves and did a stand-up routine. It was well-received. He kept at it and even eventually created a new stand-up group, Awkward Silence. Many of his jokes are commentaries on Arab and American culture and how people see one another. He has done standup about his Arab background, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, his skin color, and more.

“I love making people laugh,” said Elzofri.

But he doesn’t tell his family about his comedy, he said. It is too public, too self-revealing for the intensely private Yemeni culture, where even going on Facebook is considered too public.

Elzofri has “such a dynamic personality,” said Gregory. “He’s passionate about the things he’s passionate about but he also has a great sense of humor.”

Teach for America comes calling

In his senior year, Elzofri got an email from Teach from America asking if he might be interested in teaching at a public school for two years. A friend had recommended him. Elzofri had come to Wesleyan intending to be a math professor but had switched majors when he became increasingly interested in politics. But he had always tutored younger kids — first teaching math in high school to Willard students and then in two different programs in college. At one point he tutored two Syrian refugees living in Turkey. They Skyped weekly.

Elzofri liked that Teach for America went into poorer communities to help children who were born without a lot of advantages. That had been his experience growing up. He had seen the difference between going to a school were textbooks were shared and one where there was a book for everybody. He was also concerned that Yemeni culture wasn’t vested in ensuring that girls got a good education.

“Teaching is something that I’ve always thought about and always wanted to do,” said Elzofri. “I experienced education inequality in my own home, primarily because I am a male. My female counterparts may not have the same opportunities as me. I do believe firmly that every student should have an opportunity to have a good quality education.”

So far the experience teaching nine and 10-year-olds has been rewarding if challenging, he said. Some of the kids in Elzofri’s class have severe behavioral challenges. Some of the students shout whenever an idea pops into his or her mind. Additionally, four of the 31 don’t speak English, making it difficult for the teacher to reach them. But they are also eager to learn.

Elzofri’s challenge is to control the classroom but in a way that respects the students and shows he cares, he said. He tries to create a calm atmosphere in class where everyone has the opportunity to speak. If the students are talking out of turn, Elzofri will set a timer to see how long it takes them to settle down.

“I tell them there is a time and place for everything,” said Elzofri. “I tell them there is a time and place for jokes, there is a time and a place for teaching. If one person is talking, I’ll wait. Not only do I care about you learning, I don’t want you distracting anyone else from learning.”

Elzofri said he sometimes shares some details about his life as a way to get kids interested in a topic. Last week, Elzofri asked his students to write their own poems. They had been reading and talking about poetry since September, but some of the students were still reluctant to write. Elzofri then told them a story about himself and how he had overcome a hard moment. The next thing he knew, they were saying, “Can you stop talking? Can we just write?”

For a few magical moments, the kids scribbled poems.

Then one student picked up a chair to throw at another. Elzofri had to clear the classroom.

Not all teachers would be sanguine about a student throwing a chair. And Teach for America has been criticized for placing inexperienced teachers into schools that have students who would benefit from teachers with many years of experience.

Elzofri works hard to learn on the job. He has weekly classes with Teach for America, talks regularly to a mentor, and slips into the classrooms of other teachers whenever possible to pick up instruction tips. He is attending school to get his teaching credential as well.

The challenges he faces means he doesn’t always get a lot of sleep, but they don’t appear to get him down. Last week, Elzofri sounded upbeat and happy about all that he has been able to teach his students, despite the hiccups.

“Every word I say to my kids matters,” said Elzofri.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...