Afghan Students Struggle To Navigate U.S. Schools After Fleeing Taliban

Lack of documentation, new systems and different standards are making it difficult for many students to adjust.
Evacuees who fled Afghanistan arrive in the U.S. at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Aug. 31.
Evacuees who fled Afghanistan arrive in the U.S. at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Aug. 31.
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Mahdi Kabuli likes math. Sure, geometry eludes him sometimes, but overall he’s really good at the subject. At 18, Kabuli is already thinking about college, where he wants to study economics or computer science. As of last year, nearing the end of his time at the top private school in Afghanistan, he was on track to do it.

Then the Taliban took over his home, Kabul, in August, and he, his mother and his four younger brothers were forced to flee to the United States. They felt lucky to make it out: A day after they left Kabul, there was an explosion right where they had been hiding. Kabuli and his family came to the U.S. with only the clothes they were wearing and whatever 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 would need to start over from the ninth grade.

As the oldest son in the household, Kabuli felt responsible for supporting his family. His plan was to work part-time while he finished his final year of high school. Starting again as a freshman would make this 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.”

Of the more than 50,000 Afghan refugees who’d come to the U.S. as of early November, nearly half are under 18. Some, like Kabuli, are struggling to pick up where they left off because they don’t have the proper documents. Many are navigating a new school system with different norms and practices, and finding it difficult to adjust.

Tracking Down Transcripts

Some school districts are taking steps to help Afghan refugee students resume their education without having to start anew. San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, California, serves more than 2,000 students who speak Dari or Pashto, Afghanistan’s two primary languages. Its refugee specialists have been communicating with families in Afghanistan and asking them to bring their transcripts.

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

Cristina Burkhart, San Juan’s refugee program specialist, said she’s worked with one student who should be a senior in high school but has no transcripts.

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

Many female students destroyed their transcripts as the Taliban advanced, afraid that the militants would target them as threats to the new regime. Days after the Taliban took over Kabul, the co-founder of an Afghan all-girls boarding school set fire to all of her students’ records ― “not to erase them,” she wrote on Twitter, “but to protect them and their families.”

California, which has received the largest number of Afghan refugees at 4,719 as of Dec. 21, passed a bill in 2018 to make it easier for migratory students to graduate with partial credit. However, the bill applies only to high school students who have already received two years of schooling in the United States ― so even if Kabuli lived in California, it wouldn’t work for him.

Challenges In School

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

“We’ve had situations where parents are told ‘You need to go speak to the counselor, the counselor would like to speak to you,’ and right away, the counselor has a negative connotation,” Burkhart said. “‘Counselors are for crazy people.’ That’s the perception I’ve gotten from people from Afghanistan. They don’t understand that the counselor is for academics.”

San Juan’s specialists said one of the biggest differences is attendance. In Afghanistan, students are taught to be on time or be absent. The specialists said they had to teach some Afghan families that being tardy is better than missing an entire day.

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

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

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, living standards are not to the point we see here. Students are not used to the majority of these standards,” said Mansoor, who worked with the U.S. Embassy and arrived in America in 2015.

It’s 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 are simply lonely. Social, who left Afghanistan in 2019, said a teacher at her child’s school asked her to help with an Afghan student who was crying one day.

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

Providing Support

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

“I’ve had schools that have called and said, ‘Well, these parents are refusing services for the students,’” Burkhart said.

But when they talk to Mansoor, the refugee specialist, it turns around.

“They’re happy, they’re thankful that they’re giving them the services, it’s completely different,” Burkhart said. “Having somebody who understands the culture, understands the language — he knows exactly how to address the concerns and make it positive, not negative.”

Social said she tries to include the basics of surviving in America ― such as the difference between a Social Security number and a telephone number ― in her English classes, which used to be primarily for adults but now include high school students.

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

“We teach one family, and that family tells another family, and now it’s spreading,” Burkhart said. “They’re building capacity amongst themselves.”

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

He applied to every job he could find. He spent months waiting to hear back from any of them ― sometimes after reapplying multiple times ― until finally getting a job earlier this week. Kabuli said it’s hard work, but it’s better than being stuck at home.

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

“I wanted to study in a better way, and study in the standard of the United States, but I couldn’t,” he said.

Sometimes, he dreams of Afghanistan.

“I have dreamed that I go back,” he said. “It’s so scary.”

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