NEW CANAAN — Haonan Zheng and Sergiy Babenkov, both 17, hail from very different countries. Zheng used to live in Chengdu, a city in southwest China, and Babenkov in Kharkiv, Ukraine, only “30 minutes away from the Russian border.”

Neither spoke English when they arrived at New Canaan.

They now play football together.

“I heard football was one of the more famous sports in America, so I decided to play it,” said Zheng, a junior. He also considered the swim team, but the 6 a.m. morning practices dissuaded him. “That was way too early.”

Both students had no grasp of the English language when they moved to the states, but after much individual effort and help from the English Learner Program, they’ve been able to absorb the various expressions and phrases that come with immersing oneself in a new tongue.

The English Learner Program, headed by Lizette D’Amico and Crista Rizzuti, helps international students throughout all the five public schools in town ease into their new surroundings. This year, the program is helping about 50 students from the kindergarten to high school level.

“When I got here, I knew words and I sort of understood most things, but I didn’t know how to make sentences,” said Babenkov, who arrived in 2014. He still remembers the one-way flight he took to New York City from Ukraine, with many bags in tow.

Rounding off his last year at the school, Babenkov is hoping to pursue his studies in computer science and, hopefully, continue playing as an outside linebacker in college.

Many international families come to New Canaan for their particular reasons. Gian and Heidee Marra previously lived in Santo Domingo, the bustling capital of the Dominican Republic, when they settled into town in August 2017.

Schools were a foremost concern especially for their twin boys, Luca and Marco, who are both in South School, and their daughter, Aria. Like Zheng and Babenkov before them, the three children arrived knowing little to no English.

“It was a bit chaotic in the beginning,” Gian Marra said. “But in three months time, the children had adapted and the teachers were always nice and helpful, especially with reading. They had to catch up in a way and they started to have friends too.”

Gian, who used to work in finance in the Dominican Republic, said he was happy at the way his children had picked up the language.

“The plan is to stay here,” Gian said. “Back home there was good economic growth but also corruption and crime, and when you think about where you want to be 10 years from now ... it’s just not the best.”

Changes in technology have aided D’Amico and Rizzuti, who between them speak three other languages, in facilitating conversation between the international students and school personnel.

“We used to ask for all these dictionaries like Russian and Chinese,” D’Amico said. “But now with all this new technology, it’s made it much easier for the students and us to communicate.”

For Zheng and his family, the U.S. represents an immense opportunity but also a weighty responsibility.

“There’s many reasons why we came,” Zheng said. “My parents brought me to get a better education and, secondly, they didn’t want me to grow up in that political environment.”

Though Zheng juggles many courses and activities at school, he expressed that he felt a lot of pressure back in his home country. Before middle school, high school and college, students are required to take lengthy entrance exams.

Unlike the SAT, there are no retakes.

“These exams determine your whole life,” Zheng said. “It’s a lot of pressure and you want to get into the best schools. I was looking at the ChengDu foreign language school, one of the better schools in the country.”

In similar fashion, Babenkov has made the most out of the high school experience, and though he could return to his home country, he’s not sure it would be a good idea due to the political climate.

Though international students at New Canaan schools are surrounded by a fully English-speaking environment, back home they never forget where they’re from.

“Spanish is an important language to know,” Gian said. “And it’s also a way to keep in touch with our roots and our culture.”

humberto.juarez@hearst

mediact.com