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My Story

Publication Date: 2008-12-05

As Cindy Lutenbacher explains below, this is an extraordinary child being given a chance because of the devoted work of volunteers. Read on for her remarkable story and that of the Saturday School, which has evolved from four sisters and two volunteers to seventy-five students and thirty volunteers. A group of volunteers are working to go even further. You will read what they are up to in Cindy's message below.

You will see that you can help in this remarkable effort to rescue refugee teens pretty much abandoned by the public school system.

My name is Fakhria and I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. I couldn’t go to school when I was four, as other children did, but my older brother helped me to learn reading and a little writing. When I was six, my parents enrolled my sister and me in Qalayeshda Elementary School just fifteen minutes from our house. Ms. Abedda was my teacher and I liked her a lot. But I only had one year of school because the Taleban came and my parents were afraid to send me to school. The next six months I stayed at home with my sister, Farishta, and we worked four hours a day making carpets.

I remember being so happy in that first grade in Kabul. I particularly remembered my first day at the school. It had been raining in the early morning. By the time I woke up, the rain had stopped. We had breakfast in our garden where we had apples, pears, peaches, and grapes growing, and many kinds of roses. My father called me Big Bee because every morning I buzzed around, wanting to be the first one to smell the flowers and eat the ripest grapes while my father watered the plants.

That first day, my mother walked me to school. It was a beautiful day; the sky was bright, but the air was a little chilly. Brown birds with black heads perched in the trees and sang. I wanted to sing with them.

My teacher, Ms. Abedda, greeted us the first day and gave my mother the timetable. I found out later that the children thought she was the nicest teacher in the school. She particularly encouraged me because I always paid attention when she was teaching.

That first day we had to learn the alphabet and the numbers up to ten. Sitting in front of me was Ghulan, a very talkative boy, and beside me sat Nahid and Majjabin, two girls who became my friends. Nahid had no front teeth, which made it hard to understand her and sometimes she did not pay attention so I would tell her what she was supposed to do. Majjabin looked strange because she had very short hair, like a boy. That day was one of my best in my life.

But I enjoyed the whole year as well as the first day of school. Every day I had an interesting story, and told it to my parents at the dinner time. Once I had learned to write, I wrote them down in my journal. I used to keep a journal when I was little, but I stopped keeping it because I was afraid I would lose it.

After my first grade in Afghanistan, I had to stop going to school because it was unsafe and because my family needed me to stay at home and make carpets.

When the Taleban attacked our area, we were forced to flee from our home and the family walked for three hours to a place where we were allowed to spend the night in the basement. That time we could not take everything, but I took my journal because it was more important to me than anything else, but I lost it on my way. In the basement there was only room for women and children. So the men had to stay outside to guard us and get food and water for us. I remember all the children crying. The Taleban were bombing and shooting all night. When we came out of the basement in the morning, there were dead bodies all around. One of the bodies was my father’s.

We returned to our house that day, because life had got too dangerous in the other place and we needed to leave the country. We only stayed there until just after my father’s funeral ceremony and then we took a crowded bus to Pakistan border and to Peshawar. On the way, the Taleban stopped the bus and ordered all the males to get off the bus. My brother, Karim, was twelve years old then and my other brother, Majeed, was fifteen. My mother cried out that Majeed was sick. He could not walk properly because he had a bullet in his back, so the Taleban let him stay in the bus with us. We did not see Karim again for nine years. He was twenty-one when he joined us in the United States.

We lived in Pakistan for about six years. My sister and I could not go to school because we had to work and help my mother. We were making carpets at home and we worked 12 hours a day from 6 am till 6 pm, so life was very hard.

In 2004 we came to the United States. Because my father was killed by the Taleban in Afghanistan my mother is the head of my family. I started school in seventh grade. It was good though, but not easy for a person in a different country surrounded by different people and different languages, a person who had had only one year of school; But no matter how hard I have to work, I am glad as long as I can catch-up with daily problems. "Life is the name of hardship."

It has been four years that we are here in Georgia. I am happy that my brother Karim is back with us and we are all together. Life is still hard for us; My sister and I work four hours a day after school because we need the money. My brother works all night and my mom works many hours at the laundry. She does not have time to go to school and learn English to help her get a better job. But Mom is happy for us, because we have the opportunity to get education and have a better life, and so am I.

Comment by Cindy Lutenbacher:

This beautiful essay comes from a young woman who had only one year of schooling. When she and her family came to the U.S., she was given a few months of time at the International Center (where she was expected to “catch up”) and then placed by my county into Clarkston’s middle and high school. It won’t surprise you that she and her sisters were drowning.

Her youngest sister, Khojasta, however, had a better chance because she was able to attend the International Community School (ICS), a charter elementary school whose mission focuses upon serving children who are refugees. But because ICS is a community, the needs of family members are also paramount in the hearts of the people of the school. Thus, with volunteers tutoring and helping Khojasta’s four sisters for two hours on Saturdaysâ€Â¦was Saturday School born.

In the following four years, Saturday School has evolved from four sisters and two volunteers to about seventy-five students and thirty volunteers. The focus is still on learning English and, for school-age kids, getting help with homework. But the students now range from age four to grannies whom we imagine and hope to be immortal. I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with Saturday School for the past three years, and I can attest to the amazing joy that those hours bring to everyone involved.

Yet our efforts are so tiny in comparison to the need. In the southeastern U.S., my county (DeKalb) has the highest percentage of people who are refugees. The “dumping” of un-schooled and under-schooled kids into middle and high schools has continued with unabated ferocity.

So have the nightmares. For example, there’s Daga from Eritrea, who is a really brilliant little girl with a shooting star smile, and who has had the stuffing beaten out of her more than once by classmates at the middle school she attends. Helen from Somalia can barely speak a phrase or two of English, but she is failing because in seventh grade, she is expected to understand APA citation style. And there’s Juliet from Afghanistan, who was told to write a sonnet with a specified rhyming pattern plus personifications and alliteration.

As far as I can tell, my county doesn’t give a damn about Daga or Helen or Juliet or Fakhria.

So a bunch of us are trying to go even further than Saturday School. We are working to create a small five-days-a-week school for teens who are refugees, starting with thirty girls, two amazing teachers, two terrific teacher aides, and a few rented classrooms: the Global Village School of Atlanta. We will work with the teens to help them with language, literacy, academic skills, and life skills, truly helping them to catch up while in a safe environment. Saturday School’s motto is ours, too (and we are all Saturday School folk, anyway): Back to the beginning, full speed ahead. We know it’s still a miserable drop in the bucket, but that’s never been a reason for inertia. And thanks to the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, we have enough seed money to barely begin next year. Barely.

So, we need whatever coins you can send.

Let me close with another part of Fakhria and Khojasta’s family story. After being taken off the bus by the Taliban, Karim was forced into military service. However, he escaped after only a few months and then spent the next eight years walking from city to city, from refugee camp to refugee camp, seeking his family. Ruqia, the family’s mother, had not a clue where he was or even that he was. But one day in 2006, thanks to the efforts of Sister Patty Caraher (one of the founders of ICS), Ruqia received a message: Your son is alive. He had been finally located and was brought to Atlanta to be reunited with his mother, brother, and sisters. Ro helped Khojasta make the “Welcome Home” sign.

I think often of Karim’s eight years of walking. And Karim makes me think of the will, determination, and sacrifice of African ancestors as they walked to Canada in order to defy slavery. And then I ask myself where my feet need to go.

Send contribution to:
FICS (payable to Friends of International Community Schools­please write GVS on the subject line)
5222 Poplar Springs Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30083-2929.

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