Afghan students struggle to navigate US schools after fleeing Taliban

Mahdi Kabuli loves math. Sure, geometry escapes him sometimes, but overall he’s really good at the subject. At 18, Kabuli is already thinking about university, where he wants to study economics or computer science. Last year, as he neared the end of his time at Afghanistan’s top private school, he was well on his way to doing just that.

Then the Taliban took over his home, Kabul, in August, and he, his mother and four younger brothers were forced to flee to the United States. They felt lucky to get out: one day after leaving Kabul, there was an explosion where they had been hiding. Kabuli and his family came to the United States with only the clothes they were wearing and all the papers they could grab.

But those papers did not include their school transcripts.

When Kabuli and two of his brothers, ages 15 and 16, tried to enroll in their new public school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the school told them that without their transcripts, they should start again from the ninth grade.

As the eldest son in the household, Kabuli felt responsible for providing for his family. His plan was to work part-time while he finished his senior year of high school. Starting over in the first year would make it more difficult.

The two brothers decided to accept the school’s terms and enter the system in the ninth grade. Kabuli felt he couldn’t.

“Because they are younger, they have time,” Kabuli said. “But I don’t.”

Among the more than 50,000 Afghan refugees who arrived in the United States in early November, almost half are under 18. Some, like Kabuli, find it difficult to pick up where they left off because they lack the necessary documents. Many are navigating a new school system with different standards and practices and are struggling to adapt.

Track Transcripts

Some school districts are taking steps to help Afghan refugee students return to school without having to start over. The San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, California has more than 2,000 students who speak Dari or Pashto, Afghanistan’s two main languages. Its refugee specialists contacted the families in Afghanistan and asked them to bring their transcripts.

But for students who have already come without their transcripts, the specialists’ hands are tied.

San Juan refugee program specialist Cristina Burkhart said she worked with a student who should be a senior in high school but doesn’t have a transcript.

“Because he’s an evacuee, he can’t get them,” Burkhart said. “The Taliban have taken over, and there’s no way for him to get his school transcripts.”

Many female students destroyed their transcripts as the Taliban advanced, fearing militants saw them as threats to the new regime. Days after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the co-founder of an Afghan boarding school for girls set fire to all his students’ files ― “not to erase them”, she wrote on Twitter, “but to protect them and their families”.

California, which hosted the largest number of Afghan refugees in 4,719 as of December 21, passed a bill in 2018 to make it easier for migrant students to earn a partial-credit degree. However, the bill only applies to high school students who have already completed two years of schooling in the United States – so even if Kabuli lived in California, it wouldn’t work for him.

challenges at school

Cultural differences in the US education system, such as different grading standards and formal parent-teacher conferences, mean Afghan refugee parents and students have to relearn how school works.

“We’ve had situations where parents were told, ‘You need to go talk to the counselor, the counselor would like to talk to you,’ and right away the counselor has a negative connotation,” Burkhart said. “’Advisors are for fools.’ This is the perception that I had of the people of Afghanistan. They don’t understand that counseling is for academics.

San Juan specialists said one of the biggest differences was attendance. In Afghanistan, students are taught to be on time or to be absent. Specialists said they need to teach some Afghan families that it is better to be late than to miss an entire day.

“Basic information that … we take for granted, thinking everyone knows this – they don’t know that,” Burkhart said.

Everything from how to use a locker or a student card to getting food in a cafeteria is new to many Afghan refugee students, said Sayed Mansoor, an Afghan refugee and school community specialist at the San Juan Unified School District.

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, the standard of living is not at the level we see here. Students are not used to the majority of these standards,” said Mansoor, who worked with the US Embassy and arrived in America in 2015.

It is often easier for students who go to school with other Afghans. Lailuma Social, who teaches English to Afghan students at Prince George Community College, said many students simply feel lonely. Social, who left Afghanistan in 2019, said a teacher at her child’s school asked her to help a crying Afghan student one day.

“I asked him, what happened?” says social. “He said, ‘This is my second day. The first day, I saw someone from Afghanistan, I talked to him. But today he is not here. I’m just lost.’ “

Provide support

Educators familiar with working with Afghan refugees say hiring people who know the culture and speak the language is the most important way to provide support to Afghan refugee students.

“I’ve had schools call and say, ‘Well, these parents are refusing student services,'” Burkhart said.

But when they talk to Mansoor, the refugee specialist, that changes.

“They’re happy, they’re grateful to give them the services, it’s completely different,” Burkhart said. “Having someone who understands the culture, understands the language – he knows exactly how to address concerns and make them positive, not negative.”

Social said she tries to include the basics of surviving in America — like the difference between a social security number and a phone number — in her English classes, which were primarily for adults but now include high school students.

At the San Juan refugee program, Mansoor once accompanied Afghan students to school because they were afraid of traffic lights. The program tries to provide other services, such as emotional and social support for students and cultural instruction for teachers.

“We teach one family, and that family tells another family about it, and now it’s spreading,” Burkhart said. “They are building their abilities with each other.”

Kabuli’s family said government support and advocacy groups like the Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center have been helpful, but government support is waning. Kabuli doesn’t know what he will do if he doesn’t find a job. The rent for their apartment in Maryland is $1,500 a month.

He applied for every job he could find. He spent months waiting for a response from one of them — sometimes after applying multiple times — until he finally got a job earlier this week. Kabuli said it was hard work, but it was better than being stuck at home.

Kabuli is pursuing a high school equivalency program through Prince George Community College, but classes are only held once a week.

“I wanted to study in a better way and study by US standards, but I couldn’t,” he said.

Sometimes he dreams of Afghanistan.

“I dreamed that I was coming back,” he said. “It’s so scary.”


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