The Gardbring family, all five of them, were born and raised in Sweden before moving to East Tennessee just a few years ago.
They represent just a small portion of the diversity at Lake Ridge Elementary School in Boones Creek, where, as Principal John Phillips said, 31 families within the school represent 31 countries.
What better way, Phillips thought, to highlight the tremendous amount of culture within the school’s walls than with an International Fair? Phillips did just that, with tables for each of the countries displayed around their gymnasium, including a table from Sweden, which had Anna Gardbring sharing tidbits about the country’s food, clothing, general culture and other important information.
Gardbring, raised in Stockholm, and her husband, followed a job to the area just a few years ago, bringing their three children, Erik, 8, Lilly, 6, and Ellen, 3, along with them, none of the children speaking a word of English.
She says thanks to the combination of the kids making friends with English-speaking classmates, high-quality educators, with general American television culture sprinkled in, all now speak English, and speak it well. After growing up in several other countries, Gardbring is ecstatic to learn her kids’ elementary school is filled with so much worldly cultures.
“I love the diversity,” Gardbring said, “It’s a gift for life to have friends across the world.”
She joked that Ellen has been pronuncing the word “pandas” with a mixture of southern and Swedish accents. Erik and Lilly said if they could travel anywhere in the world, they’d pick to go to Sweden because they miss their homeland so much.
Phillips’ program included the kids carrying around a passport that required them to get their document stamped at each country, as a world traveler would, and also the opportunity to stop at a duty-free shop on their way out from the gym, where they each got a surprise, representative of a gift a person might buy there in real life.
Bangladesh, Bosnia, China, Dominica, Egypt, Ghana, Japan, Lebanon, Venezuela and Yemen were just some of the other stops along the students’ trip across the world, with many offering delicacies special to the region. Parents of the school’s children were often the people behind the tables, educating the passing groups on their country.
Martha Belete, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, shared food, recipes and traditional Ethiopian clothes with the students. She said no other country in Africa has its own alphabet and that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.
Her daughter, 4-year-old Meron, goes to Lake Ridge for pre-school.
“I didn’t expect this,” Belete said. “I didn’t know there was this much diversity in East Tennessee.”
Hadir Shareef, parent of twin 5-year-old boys Yusuf and Yasin, and originally from Alexandria, Egypt, said she wasn’t surprised to see so many cultures at an East Tennessee school, because she considers America a magnet for people across the world. She and her mother were enjoying a related project that had the boys and girls create paper masks to make them look like King Tut and Cleopatra.
Leanna Baldwin, one of the organizers of the event, said the goal of the fair was to teach students to be accepting of differences and acknowledging all the things that make people the same.
Hadi Elbazouni, a local doctor, originally from Beirut, Lebanon, made up a special hummus and some baklava for the eager world travelers. Elbazouni’s 9-year-old son Elias has taken a liking to what his father calls Lebanon’s favorite sport — soccer, and says his talent could bring him to the top one day. Like the other international parents, Elbazouni said he was also blown away by the amount of diversity at Lake Ridge, saying it was a big surprise, but something he certainly welcomes.
Another sports talent at Lake Ridge is second-grader Gian Carlos Zaatini, who’s also played soccer as well as baseball. His family is originally from Venezuela, and starting out speaking Spanish at home, although, since learning English, speaks that more than his original language. Zaatini said if given the opportunity, there are many countries represented in his school that he’d love to explore, including India, Mexico and more.
“I want to know about their culture,” Zaatini said about the possibility of being a world traveler.