When the school year began in August for the Cajon Valley Union district in California, some members of the school community from Afghanistan were missing.
Through local and international phone calls, staff in the district tracked down eight families who, after going to visit relatives in Afghanistan, had been unable to return to the United States amid the chaos of military evacuations and rising Taliban control, said Michael Serban, director of the district’s family and community engagement office.
Like administrators in some other districts, Serban’s staff suddenly found themselves contacting legislators and government agencies to help bring families back.
“We had no idea we were going to be playing that role,” Serban said.
Assisting in international evacuations is beyond the usual scope of school district employees’ work. Yet educators who work with refugee students and families often see their roles extended in unexpected ways. For many of these students, schools become an integral support system for helping them and their parents navigate life in a new country.
The Biden administration has requested funding from Congress to help resettle 65,000 Afghans in the United States by the end of September, and 95,000 by September 2022, according to the Associated Press.
As districts—and particularly those in California, Maryland, Texas and Virginia, which have long had large numbers of Afghans resettle there—prepare for new arrivals from that country, experts say having systems in place to welcome refugee students and continuously support them will be key.
At the Cajon Valley district, seven of the eight families stranded in Afghanistan have returned, Serban said. Efforts are ongoing to help the remaining family.
“They’re literally being chased by the Taliban,” Serban said. “I mean, they’re moving from house to house.”
‘A lot of these families are fractured’
So far, there are nearly 40 students from the San Juan Unified school district in Carmichael, Calif., still in Afghanistan with their families, said Raj Rai, the district’s director of communication. She added that the district continues to keep in touch with these families, sharing information with local legislators working to bring them back.
Ahmad Nimati, a school community refugee specialist in the San Juan district, said that in some of these cases, one parent and some of the children are stranded overseas while the remaining family members are in California.
“A lot of these families are fractured,” Rai said. “So it’s also providing support for those family members that remain in Sacramento [County], and making sure they have what they need.”
That more localized support and contact is what refugee specialists are used to.
While newly arrived families are often first helped by resettlement agencies, schools then quickly pick up the work of helping families adjust to their new homes and feel supported going forward, said Cristina Burkhart, an English-learner program specialist at the San Juan district. That means tending to students’ academic needs, but also doing things like providing donated food, clothing, and wheelchairs for students. The work also extends to helping parents gain agency, including teaching them things like how to schedule doctors’ appointments and how the school grading system works.
Individual school leaders also play a role in assisting students and parents in adjusting to a new home.
At Templeton Elementary School in Riverdale, Md., principal Ebony Harris ensures that Afghan students have spaces where they can pray, and that there are halal food options available.
“The brain does not even function if it doesn’t feel safe, secure, and I would say loved, so we just want to make sure that we’re doing that for them,” Harris said.
For Masuda Stanekzai, an Afghan mother of a 5th grader at Templeton, the halal food options are a detail she appreciates for her child, as well as the various skills her daughter has learned in school.
“Kids learn how to help each other, how to help their friends, how to be organized,” she said.
The family arrived in the United States in 2017, Stanekzai said. While it was hard at first to adjust to a new life, Stanekzai said her daughter is now happy at school and wants to be a scientist.
Teachers can ease the experience for new students
Fostering a welcoming environment for refugee students is something teachers can do in the classroom as well.
At Travis Heights elementary school in Austin, Texas, Shayna Bright, a 2nd grade English-as-a-second-language teacher, keeps a journal where she jots down Pashto and Dari words her Afghan students teach her. So while they learn English, she learns more of their home languages.
“That buy-in with the children has really made a big impact,” Bright said. “They see that I care not just about their education, but about them and their culture.”
There’s even space in the classroom where students can go and sit if they’re feeling a strong emotion and need a minute away to think or calm their bodies, Bright added.
With the events in Afghanistan circulating in the U.S. news, many Afghan students are expressing concerns about extended family members in danger abroad.
“We’ve been hearing from multiple sites, elementary and secondary, with concerns about students having a lot of anxiety or having a little bit more aggression than usual because of the stress of what’s happening in the news,” said Burkhart of the San Juan district.
In Cajon Valley, families are reaching out to the district asking for assistance in evacuating other relatives as well.
The district is appealing to Congress to help relatives of school community members who are in danger in Afghanistan due to their affiliations with the United States, said David Miyashiro, the district’s superintendent.
As schools work to provide resources for existing Afghan students during these tough times, they’re also preparing for the children that will arrive in the coming months. That includes training teachers and other staff on how to best support Afghan newcomers; connecting with refugee resettlement agencies to track how many students will be expected and when; and preparing to ramp up the community-building work that’s proven most helpful.
“Where are they going to be served? How are we going to serve them? That’s just what we do,” said Serban of the Cajon Valley.
A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Here’s How Schools Are Helping Afghan Refugee Students