Paradise lost and found: Brazil expatriate finds return to Dearborn full of surprises

Photo courtesy of Leena Abbas

Leena Abbas (left) and her brother Muhammad at a friend’s house in Brazil.

Sunday Times Newspapers

DEARBORN – When 14-year-old Leena Abbas returned to Dearborn this summer after eight years in Salvador, Brazil, she said she felt like she had gotten off a spaceship instead of an airplane.

She said her father, Jehad Abbas, who works for Ford Motor Co., returned their family to Dearborn this summer to give his 16-year-old son Muhammad a chance to establish residency before starting college in two years, and because it seemed like the right time for the family to return stateside.

Abbas, who initially left Dearborn as a 6-year-old, said Dearborn’s cold weather has been one of the most difficult adjustments for her to make.

“I’m used to it being hot during Christmas because during December it’s summer there,” Abbas said. “Here, the image of Santa is with a heavy coat; there, he’s in shorts with a fishing rod and with sunglasses on.”

She said that in Brazil it is summer all year long, with temperatures 85 degrees Fahrenheit and above.

When she arrived stateside in August it was hotter than in Brazil’s tropical climate, where she trained wild exotic birds as a hobby.

“During thunderstorms they’d get hurt, so I’d take them in for a while and raise them until they were ready to go out,” Abbas said.

She said the squirrels in Michigan fascinate her and remind her of Brazil’s Miqo monkeys, which she said are more plentiful than squirrels and about the same size, with long tails.

“They are like pigeons,” Abbas said. “If you rattle a banana on the floor they would just come and eat them.”

When she arrived in Dearborn she said she noticed how clean the streets were and how freely teens were able to walk around. She said in Brazil her classmates at the prestigious Pan American School in Bahia, where she attended first through eighth grade, were wealthy and at risk of being kidnapped.

She said if her classmates went to a store or mall in Brazil they would go in a large group and would be accompanied by a driver or bodyguard. They had drivers because in Brazil motorists drive faster and one can’t get a driver’s license until age 20.

Abbas is driven to Dearborn High School by her parents, but she hopes her 16-year-old brother will soon have his driver’s license.

Having roughly 600 students in her freshman class is a big adjustment after having 20 classmates in her eighth grade class in Brazil. She said having to run to class before the bell rings and not having to wear a uniform to school are some of the biggest adjustments she has had to make.

She added that in Brazil her teachers were less serious and more like friends, and attended parties with them.

She said that the teens she went to school with in Brazil liked the same music and clothing brands as her classmates here. However, she said they were a lot more serious about their studies because many of them knew they would someday inherit and run their family businesses.

“You would see the kids studying their butts off every single day,” Abbas said. “The more you’re smart there, the more they look up to you… I see it sort of differently here.”

Abbas said social studies and history are her favorite subjects, and she would like to attend a college in a warm state to pursue international studies and foreign languages.

She is currently learning to speak her fifth language, French. Abbas spoke Portuguese (the official language of Brazil) and English with her classmates at the Pan American School in Bahia.

She learned Spanish from her Mexican-born mother and Arabic from her Syrian-born father, who met while attending college in the United States. She said she is still not used to waking up in the morning to face the dark and the cold. She also misses mamao, a papaya-like fruit, and fresh coconut milk.

“At school we would… walk during lunch… (and) could go up to a tree with a knife and cut open a coconut,” Abbas said.

She said she has enjoyed trying blueberries, blackberries and cherries for the first time in Michigan.

Carving pumpkins at Halloween was not new to her, but she said the holiday is scarier in Brazil.

“Here you see people dressed up like princesses,” Abbas said. “There it’s… witches and vampires… they take it dark to scare people.”

She said Brazil has much poverty and cheap labor, and she misses their servants, some who lived with them. She said their drivers would take them to parties and hang out with them.

She said she also misses Portuguese cartoons, but has enjoyed discovering new television shows like “Psych” and “Burn Notice.”

The colorful falling leaves in autumn surprised her, since Brazil’s plants are green year-round.

“Here I see all these different colors,” Abbas said, “And I think that’s what’s growing on me.”