CROWN HEIGHTS — If you ask 16-year-old Shanikua Barrows what she misses most about Panama, she'll tell you it's her grandmother, a woman 'mad tall and really strong' and so tough even drug dealers feared her, with her big market bag and a gun in her tights.
Reading aloud from her new book at the Brooklyn Public Library in Crown Heights, Barrows described how her grandmother wrestled that gun from her hands as she vowed revenge after a friend was shot to death by a gang of AK-47 toting thugs.
"My grandmother came and hugged me and asked what I was going to do with the gun in my hand?" the teen said, fondling the diamond ring that was given by her grandmother when Barrows left for the US.
"She took the gun from me."
Barrows' essay is remarkable, but perhaps the most amazing part of her story isn't her survival, but the fact that two years ago, the newly-published author couldn't speak English.
Shanikua is a member of Jes Kruse's ESL class at Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in Central Brooklyn. Her story, "Grandma's Little Princess," was among more than two dozen by student authors from her class which are published by CreateSpace.
All of the stories are written by recent immigrants who spoke almost no English when they arrived here.
"I think it's really powerful because they've lived such intense lives," Kruse said of the book, which is available through Amazon. "I wanted to give them an opportunity to share their stories in an authentic way."
The tales that make up "Stories That Changed Us Forever" include vivid memoirs of violence, like Barrows', as well as touching portrait's of hope like those penned by survivor's of the devestating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
"Midnight came but no one had anywhere to sleep and I was still alone," wrote survivor Emmanuelle Desmornes, 18. "Everybody was on the streets, crying."
Other stories are more intimate.
Marie Carmel August wrote about the Facebook friend request she sent the father she'd never known. Abdoul Zoure, who emigrated from Ghana to Burkina Faso and then to the United States, described his years-long search for his mother.
"I didn’t want to write it in the beginning, because I knew I was going to cry," Barrows said.
"When we were in the library and I started writing that part of the book, I cried. But in the end, I wrote it."
Cradling the new books in their hands, the students said they were proud of their debut effort, boasting that their command of the language had improved because of it.
"At first, I was like, what was the purpose of it," said student author Chanchallenge Pierre-Louis.
"But now I think it’s a big step in my life, to explain how my life was before, and to explain my life story to people."
But not all of it. Closing out his reading, Chanchallenge deployed a well-worn tactic of veteran authors, delivered in pitch-perfect English and with just a hint of a smirk.
"If you want to know the rest, you have to buy the book," he said.