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Bird: Afghan students deserve equity — here’s what California educators can do to aid new refugees in our schools

Lindsey Bird | December 16, 2021

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I spent 17 years teaching immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking high school students from around the world in my hometown of Modesto. Though all too often it was violence, suffering, and war that brought them here, the joy and promise that radiated from my students spoke to the optimism and hope of the American Dream. In 2016, two girls from Afghanistan, Halima and Fatima, came into my classroom. While on paper they seemed to have everything in common, they could not have been more different. 

Halima had a strong educational foundation, rivaling the skills and knowledge of top American teens, while Fatima had never experienced formal education. Halima came from a family of Tajik ethnicity, leading to generational access to education, wealth, and opportunity. Fatima was from the Hazara tribe, traditionally marginalized, oppressed, and often targets of ethnic cleansing during both the initial reign of the Taliban and the era of the National Unity Government. Halima had been exposed to English and was conversational. Fatima did not know how to hold a pencil or say hello. Halima had clear goals for her future that were dependent on her access to quality education. Fatima had never lived in a situation where education would have afforded her a different lot in life. While they came from the same country, spoke the same language, and were the same age when they arrived, what they needed from public education couldn’t have been more opposite. What I learned from getting to know them as individuals did not just help me help them, it helped me become a more equity-minded educator for all my students.

I thought of Halima and Fatima often as I watched the government of Afghanistan return to the hands of the Taliban. Afghan refugees, including school-aged children, are coming to California; Modesto is once again one of the resettlement hubs. We cannot assume that every student arriving from Afghanistan has the same linguistic, academic, cultural, and social-emotional needs. If we do, we will miss the opportunity to deliver on the promise of public education to build self-reliant and contributing citizens who play an informed and active role in our society. 

When students from Afghanistan arrive, it is vital that we get to know them as the unique individuals they are. Just like two children from the same household can have very different learning styles, so can students who hail from the same nation. Equity means meeting a student where they are and then providing them the support and tools necessary to graduate from the public school system with the literacy, numeracy, and self-confidence needed to have all college and career options at their fingertips. If we fail to consider every aspect of each unique student, such as age, educational experience, trauma, gender roles, ethnic identity within the Afghan culture, familial socio-economic and educational history, current self-identity and goals for the future, immigration experience and family dynamic, then we miss the opportunity to embrace and empower some truly amazing emerging Americans that have the potential to transform our communities, state, and country for the better. 

The nuances of getting to know Afghan students is nothing new to veteran educators who have experience teaching native-born and immigrant students across the nation. These teachers know that the most vital ingredient in transformational education is relationships, where the classroom, campus, and educational system the student enters celebrates students like Halima and Fatima for the assets they bring to the table and fosters them to become a better version of themselves. Yet too often all we hear about is the surface data points, such as language status, gender, race, which give us little insight into what makes each student unique and who they actually are. In focusing on only demographic labels, we are missing opportunities for students to tell us directly or indirectly what they individually need to succeed. This is why we not only need institutions to gather the insights needed to help educators identify the needs of two Afghan girls like Halima and Fatima, but then provide the curriculum, educational pathways, wrap-around services, and systemic cultural competencies necessary to meet them where they are and provide them the skills to succeed.

When we know better, we should do better. We have an opportunity to welcome, embrace, educate, and empower the students from Afghanistan entering our school system daily. When we use equity at all levels of education, from policy to practice and from district priorities office to classroom pedagogy, we can ensure these students have first-generation access to fulfilling their American dream.

Lindsey Bird is Teacher Leadership Coach at Teach Plus California. She was previously the developer, instructor, and coordinator of the Language Institute, a specialized program serving immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking high school students in Modesto, California.

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