As the winter break ends and students return to their classes, I worry for Afghan children attending schools in the United States, including Dewa, a sixth grader in Upstate New York. The 11-year-old and her family arrived in the U.S. on a Humanitarian Parole visa after fleeing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
While Dewa is physically safe today, she is not yet out of harm’s way.
Along with her parents and 5-year-old brother, Dewa is among the 97,000 Afghans who arrived in the country as part of the Biden administration’s evacuation efforts to safeguard vulnerable Afghans from Taliban persecution, prosecution and death. Dewa’s immigration journey began with her family abruptly leaving home one September evening in Kabul and ending eight months later in a two-bedroom apartment in New York State.
Dewa was looking forward to starting school in the U.S.: the building was beautiful and well-equipped compared to Afghan schools that the Taliban had shuttered for girls. Her new teachers were kind and welcoming. Tired of loneliness and missing her classmates, friends, and extended family, Dewa hoped to make new friends.
Yet, she struggled to convince peers to let her participate in group activities because of the language barrier. In desperation, she tried too hard, even giving them gifts to win their hearts.
Immigrant children like Dewa, who don’t speak English well, are evaluated on the same metrics as children who are fluent or native speakers. While adjusting takes time—Dewa did not have that luxury. Assimilating was a challenge. A top student in a private school in Kabul, she now got low grades on nearly every assessment and assignment, which crushed her confidence.
Soon she began to exhibit disconcerting behavioral changes: sitting alone in her room, sleeping for longer periods of time, talking very little, and quick to anger. It became clear that Dewa was being bullied by peers.
Dewa’s story is not unusual. As a cultural broker for a trauma therapy team that serves young refugees in Upstate New York, I have encountered many an Afghan youth experiencing similar struggles—and worse. I’ve met female teenagers who had never attended school in Afghanistan because they lived in Taliban-controlled areas and now were failing in U.S. high schools. “It makes me feel unworthy and knowing nothing,” Shabnam, a 16-year-old student, told me.
I also have worked with students who left one or both of their parents and siblings behind in Afghanistan. One male student arrived in this country with his 20-year-old cousin, while his parents and siblings stayed in their home country. He was not only dealing with the trauma of migration, a new life in a foreign country, learning a new language, and navigating a new school and a part-time job—he was also trying to financially support both himself and his impoverished family back home.
Many Afghan parents here are unable to help their children with school-related matters because they do not speak English, have never attended school, or work long hours in blue-collar jobs. They may know little to nothing about how to request social and mental health support.
If you are a public-school teacher, you may have refugee students in your classes with urgent needs. Let us not forget that these refugee children are tomorrow’s U.S. citizens. Know that there are good resources at your disposal: your school counselor, local refugee service provider agencies, social support providers, and mental health service providers.
Children like Dewa depend on you.
Baitullah Hameedi is a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Center. Prior to his arrival in the U.S. in 2021, Hameedi was a multimedia journalist in Afghanistan and a faculty member in the Journalism and Communications Studies Department at Kabul University.