No (immigrant) student left behind

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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.

Baitullah Hameedi

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.

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9 thoughts on “No (immigrant) student left behind

  1. Well written by a gifted community advocate. I hope we hear more of your voice on these and other issues. Stay well and best wishes to you and your family from Buffalo!

  2. It is so sad to read the opinion piece by BAITULLAH HAMEEDI entitled No Immigrant Student Left Behind.

    Rochester has a great reputation as a very welcoming community that includes the Rochester International Academy (RIA), where many refugee children (kindergarten – grade 12) attend school for their first 2 years in Rochester, with the goal of becoming proficient in English. RIA, recognized as a model program by the United Nations, is one of the reasons why Keeping Our Promise encourages our Afghan and Iraqi ally families to resettle in Rochester.

    RIA teachers and staff, which includes interpreters, are loving, kind, supportive, and understanding of the life upheaval our new students have gone through. They can attend school with their siblings. It is as close to a family atmosphere as I can think of. I have often said that schools in Rochester should be like RIA.

    While we can’t replace family or friends who were left behind, we do have this wonderful resource in Rochester to help with this life transition for our students who lost everything.

  3. There are programs and services available to help students and parents learn English. One such program, LACE (Language Acquisition and Cultural Exchange) is in it’s infancy but has already had an impact on the community

  4. The above story reflects my own four kids and thousands other Afghan children’s situation in the United States.  The only difference is that I realized this problem which it had already did its damage and later I tried to assist my children in their homeworks. The main reason was that I had to do work to survive and my work was not a blue color job. I had to leave my house very early in the morning and coming home in the early evenings. I had to pay my bills and was not able to support my children in their homeworks. As evacuating is the beginning and initial process of migration, there have to be a consistent support and policies for immigrants post resettlement behavioral distresses and issues which the newcomers are faced with. By doing this, it will pave the way that these gifted talents have the chance to flourish their new communities instead of a burden.  I believe if the kids get rid of the language barrier problem and manage their stress, they will be shining stars and great human resources for the future of the United States.

  5. So please tell us how we, as individuals, we can help these children. Is there a program you can point us to? Does Saints Place or similar organizations teach ESL? Can we volunteer? Thank you.

    • Eve, you are on the right track. Politicizing the issue of children trying to fit in and assimilate is not the answer. We need to step up and support these kids. They deserve to be welcomed. The problem is that many of their peers have no idea where Afghanistan is even located. They don’t realize the road they have traveled, nor the history. That education ought to be provided by the teachers. They should make the students aware of their plight. Isn’t that what education is all about? I came to America as a 12 year old. Had to learn how to speak English and the adapt and overcome. While there were some who made fun of our journey to learn how to speak English, most embraced our immigration effort, were welcoming and assisted our family. That said, it was a different time. Urban education today has failed our kids and continues to do so. When you fail to teach kids, those who come into the system suffer the consequences. They get chewed up in that failing effort. The quest to become accepted ought to start in the classroom. The teacher should dedicate a session to those kids. Teach them the geography, discuss the language, the culture and the reason why they are here. Just dropping them off in the parking lot doesn’t get the job done. I believe that’s what ‘teaching’ is all about. Semper Fi.

  6. It needs to be pointed out that the USA’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was negotiated by the Trump administration, with the Pentagon handling the logistics of the withdrawal. Trump’s agreement with the Taliban and the Afghan government gave the Biden administration precious little room to modify the plan. But that hasn’t stopped Repubicans from blaming Biden for the mistakes made by Trump and the Pentagon.

    • William, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the way it was done, the way it was handled, managed, which was a Joe Biden decision and was botched, period. He, solely, made that decision against the advice of the Chiefs of Staff. All of them advised against the way it was eventually carried out. I’m not a Trump fan, but the fact is, Joe Biden made that pathetic call. Stop dancing around the FACT that our Commander in Chief called the shots. That horrifically managed withdrawal cost us dearly. Thirteen of our finest died, billions in equipment left behind, Americans left behind. Interpreters left behind who were promise citizenship were butchered in the most creative ways. They are still trying to get out with the help of private organizations. Our national and international trust has dwindled. The recruitment shortcoming is a direct result of that mistrust. When you can’t trust our Commander in Chief to do things right nor do the right thing…..this is the result. We are decommissioning ships because we can’t recruit personnel. Need I go on? I’ll bet you’ll cling to your man in the oval office no matter what. That loyalty is primarily due to the viral hatred of Trump. And the beat goes on. While Air Force 2 with our stellar VP on board made the headlines that the plane, because of weather, had to be redirected to anther airfield….our Secretary of Defense is hospitalized with prostate cancer and the Commander in Chief isn’t even notified! I don’t know if you read the news but we have issues all over the globe that require a Secretary of Defense at the helm. That said, the two top military individuals are out of touch! Semper Fi.

      • Thanks for that revisionist history. In Feb. 2020, to great fanfare from the Republican National Committee, the Trump administration signed the withdrawal deal with the Taliban to take effect in May 2021. The Pentagon begun planning the withdrawal logistics before the ink dried on the agreement. Over the next few months, against Pentagon advice, Trump ordered repeated withdrawals of US troops from Afghanistan, reducing our presence from the high of 10,000 troops in 2017 to just under 2,500 by Jan. 15, 2021. At the same time Trump pressured the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban fighters. Thus, by the time Biden took office the Taliban was in it’s strongest military position in over two decades. Upon taking office the Pentagon informed Biden that 1) the could not meet Trump’s May 2021 withdrawal date, and 2) they could not guarantee the safety of the reduced US military presence without sending in reinforcements. Biden extended the withdrawal date to September 2021, but bowing to the fact that the US public was sick of our involvement in Afghanistan, declined to send in more troops. But I did enjoy your claim that Biden told the Pentagon how to conduct their logistics that they;d been planning for almost a year before he took office. But hey, that’s Trumpublican “logic” at it’s finest. BTW, it’s also amusing (and telling) that, when the Pentagon’s conducting of the Afghanistan withdrawal was coming apart, the GOP hurriedly removed their previous praise of Trump’s deal from the RNC website.

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