Zana Cancar came to Buffalo nine years ago as a 16-year-old from Bosnia. Forced to leave because of problems in her country, Cancar didn't speak a word of English, and things that Americans take for granted were completely new to her.
Today, Cancar speaks five languages, has graduated from Buffalo State College and has cleared many of the hurdles to American socialization.
"It's amazing you can get a [driver's] license here at 16," she said. "At home you have to be 18, and there's a day exam and a night exam. If you fail the night exam, you can't drive at night. If you fail the day exam, you can't drive during the day."
Cancar spoke at the 27th annual Fall Youth Leadership Conference held Tuesday by the National Conference for Community and Justice.
About 70 middle school pupils participated from Kadimah Jewish Day School, Tapestry Charter School, Buffalo Academy of Science, Lorraine Academy, Community School 53, Park School, Cheektowaga Middle School, Grabiarz School of Excellence, Catholic Central School, Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy, Hillery Park Academy, City Honors and School 38.
"I like learning about different cultures, what they speak and what they eat," said Crystal Santiago, a sixth-grader at Catholic Central.
"We have a lot of different cultures in America. We can learn about others," said John Lee, an eighth-grader at Park.
The conference gave pupils and teachers an opportunity to understand transitional issues for refugees and immigrants who are making their homes in the United States. Pupils participated in interactive exercises and developed plans to be presented at their schools.
Youngsters, for example, were asked to take an eye exam using a chart in Arabic to simulate the experience of non-English-speaking refugees and immigrants when they first arrive.
A mundane query stumped May Shogon, a Jordanian immigrant and an Arabic interpreter for the International Institute of Buffalo, when she first came to Buffalo.
"When the cashier said 'paper or plastic?' I thought she meant was I paying with cash or credit card," Shogon said. "There's no junk mail where I come from. Letters come from family or friends. So I really thought I won $1 million when a piece of mail came in congratulating me on my prize."