Aghan evacuees boarding military plane.
Families board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021. Photograph taken by Marine Corps Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.

Evacuees Today, California’s Students Tomorrow

Supporting Our Refugee Students

Quick Summary

  • Teach your students that Afghanistan is not synonymous with War or Terrorism, or any other single description. This is a terrible travesty and undercuts the cultural wealth that refugees bring with them in expanding the richness of America.

It is highly likely that today’s Afghan evacuees are your students tomorrow, or sometime in the near future. California is presently and historically a magnet for newcomers—immigrants and refugees alike. Fleeing from persecution is just the beginning of a perilous journey towards an unknown destination for safety. That was my family’s refugee experience. 

When Saigon fell to Communist takeover on April 30, 1975, mass evacuations of those within the Republic of Vietnam and others allied with the United States dominated the nightly news. For me, it is the sight and sound of the helicopter dangerously overfilled with occupants atop of Saigon’s U.S. Embassy that is echoed in footage of Afghans desperately hanging onto a departing airplane in Kabul. My family also made a desperate attempt at escape; we left Vietnam by boat in 1978. While gold and handshakes had secured our departure, the timing was purposely unknown to protect everyone involved. We got word, without warning, in the middle of the night. Packing in advance would have tipped someone off. We left with only what we could carry. My mom carried my infant brother. There were bribes along the way. We were shoulder to shoulder on the boat. Some drowned. We eventually arrived on the shores of Malaysia and stayed, for two years, as unwanted guests under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Fast forward to 1983 and there was I, age nine, seated in a third grade classroom in Sacramento, California. 

Tuyen Tran
Tuyen Tran, Age 9

I didn’t get what I needed as a refugee student in the 80s. This was before culturally or community responsive pedagogy and social and emotional learning. Heritage projects brought me great distress in elementary school. I did not own a baby picture and could not articulate why. No part of me or my ancestors were represented in school until my junior year of high school when the history of an unpopular war filled that void with anger and shame.  

We can do better today. It is both appropriate and imperative that teachers discuss the political and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with students. We need to help students make sense of the dramatic and heartbreaking exodus of Afghans from their homeland. With so much going on in the world and the pandemic, it can be almost effortless to become desensitized to what is happening around us. However, the deteriorating crisis in Afghanistan is preceded by twenty years of war that has produced a generation of veterans, service members, and Afghan allies who are in grave danger. Refugee students will soon attend the same public schools as children of military families. It is our responsibility to make sure each of our students is seen and heard. We can encourage perspective taking so that differing experiences and stories can coexist and enlighten. 

For the sake of all students, resist reducing and freezing in time Afghanistan as a place of war. Just because pundits, historians, and politicians will argue every facet of the war for the next decade does not mean that K-12 educators must follow suit. From personal experience, teach your students that Afghanistan is not synonymous with War or Terrorism, or any other single description. Afghanistan’s history and people are so much more than that. That said, it is critical that Afghans are visible as agents of change when this history is taught. Throughout my education, K-12 teachers gave me the impression that Vietnam only mattered as a lost war. I would even argue that that’s what most Americans associate with Vietnam. This is a terrible travesty and undercuts the cultural wealth that refugees bring with them in expanding the richness of America. In your classroom, you can make a difference. Give voice to Afghan artists who write stories, make music, perform dance, and capture culture. These artistic expressions give our students insight into Afghan and diasporic identities and perspectives, in addition to what resilience looks like through twenty years of war and beyond. 

In continuity with the past, California will absorb a great number of Afghan refugees. As a consequence of U.S. foreign policy and wars, people from countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Guatemala, and El Salvador have sought refuge from persecution and insufferable volatility here. Already, Sacramento is home to one of the largest communities of Afghans in the country. My local paper reports that one in nine Afghan refugees resettle in the Sacramento region. Our state’s diversity, fair weather, existing Afghan communities, and refugee and social services are strong pull factors. Once Afghan refugees are established, there is a strong chance that they will petition for family reunification in the United States, thereby making it even more necessary that we are sensitive to their needs and interpretations of US-Afghanistan history in the classroom.

In anticipation of your students’ questions about Afghan refugees, I’ve put together a short list of questions and potential responses that will provide historical context and foster historical empathy. I’ve also added some classroom suggestions for supporting this specific group of vulnerable students. 

Answering Your Students’ Questions

Why is Afghanistan in the news lately? 

  • Taliban Seizes Control August 15, 2021: The United States forced the Taliban into exile in 2001, post-9/11. The Taliban have reinstated themselves after seizing control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, on August 15, 2021. They overran the military forces of President Ashraf Ghani, head of the national government aligned with the United States. Quickly thereafter, President Ghani fled the country and staff members of the U.S. Embassy moved their operations to the airport to provide safe passage out of Afghanistan for American citizens and a limited number of allies. 
  • Historical context is important to deepening students’ background knowledge so that they can analyze and interpret the substance of unfolding events and their consumption of media from the nightly news to press conferences, social media, investigative reports, and so much more online. Design activities for making connections between current events and students’ lives, as part of a group project or as an independent creative arts assignment. Of course, where one chooses to begin a narrative in history makes all the difference of who and what are included. This history is too complex and not the intention of this blog to be attempted here. However, starting the U.S. War in Afghanistan with 9-11, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, would only scratch the surface. Teachers may have students investigate the nature and history of U.S. involvement in the entire region, drawing out the complicated and often contradictory aspects of U.S. interests, goals, and the consequences of its actions. Two examples include the 1980s proxy war with the Soviet Union that helped to fuel and equip the rise of the Taliban, and the “War on Terror,” in which the U.S. preemptively struck oil-rich Iraq, only to walk back false claims of searching for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. 

Who are refugees? 

  • Refugees are displaced people in transit. They may make multiple stops in countries of asylum (for temporary shelter and safety) before they secure long-term refuge and sanctuary (resettlement). They are fleeing persecution or war and most look to cross international borders. They are at the mercy of international refugee protocols that are coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Too often, refugees spend years in a state of limbo as temporary political asylees in nearby countries, such as the 6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide.  
  • Refugees are stateless. They escape from their homelands under tremendous duress. Often, leaving prevents them from ever returning home as they are labeled traitorous enemies upon departure. The fear is real. The Taliban has historically been brutal and inhumane in establishing and enforcing a government that institutes extreme interpretations of Islamic law, including public executions, minimal public life and education for women, the destruction of ancient artifacts, and discriminate violence. Depending on how long the Taliban is in power, Afghan refugees may need to make a permanent break with Afghanistan. The latter involves a painful separation from their ancestral homeland, family, friends, and other significant parts of their lives and identities including social and professional networks, religious and cultural practices tied to specific places (for example, burial rituals), and economic security.  

How are refugees different from immigrants? 

  • Legal Process for Resettlement: Refugees are different from immigrants in many ways. They fall under the administrative oversight of the Department of State in the United States, specifically the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They must register with UNHCR and prove that they have “experienced past persecution” or have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Once admitted to the United States, refugees have access to financial and social services dedicated to their resettlement, including ethnic mutual aid organizations that support and sustain community building. 
  • Imminent Danger: Unlike immigrants, there is limited to no planning involved when refugees take flight. Even if Afghans anticipated socio-political upheaval as a result of American withdrawal, without concrete instructions for evacuation or back up contingency plans, Afghans are forced to flee abruptly by any means necessary. 
  • Limited Personal Archive: Fleeing from persecution immediately means leaving behind the majority of one’s physical property and personal archives. In every screen shot and photograph of evacuations out of Kabul, students should be encouraged to look at what people are wearing and carrying. Inquire whether students have experience(s) with moving—whether to a new neighborhood, land crossing, or even overseas. What if you could only pack two pieces of luggage? What would you bring? How would you feel? What if you could only bring what you could carry? What would you select? Why? How could what you bring impact your immediate situation and long-term future? Does a lack of personal archives affect one’s identity? High school students in particular may find of interest that even academic records must be digitally safeguarded. In an attempt to limit education for women, minorities, and dissidents, the new regime may destroy online records. However, vulnerable high school and university students can access storage programs designed to protect education as a human right. They may upload and secure their identification, degrees and certifications, and academic progress. In fact, some students may even decide to voluntarily destroy personal documents to protect their identity. 
  • Post-traumatic Stress: It is natural to feel homesick when you move. However, most refugees suffer a greater void because they cannot return, which heightens post-traumatic stress. This physical and mental anguish can be the result of one or a series of compounded traumas related to homeland conditions, dangerous escapes, treatment in asylum countries, and anxiety over their legal status and economic futures. 

How do we support Afghan American students and refugees in class? 

I’ve also added some suggestions for teachers who may be looking for strategies to support new refugee students into their classrooms.  

  • Open Dialogue: Encourage students to ask questions about recent events. Correct misconceptions. Provide background information when necessary. Acknowledge when you don’t have an answer for more weighted and complex questions. Perhaps offer to conduct additional research as a class or as part of independent study or an enrichment assignment. The Library of Congress has a helpful research guide for students here
  • Storytelling: Create opportunities for students to share stories about their homeland. This could be woven in a variety of lessons in history, geography, ethnic studies, and government. Or, read student letters from Afghanistan to get a glimpse of their fears and dreams. To develop empathy, ask students to imagine how the Afghan letter writers would react to present conditions and predict how their lives (fears and dreams) have been altered as a result. Books from this list may complement the Afghan student letters and provide a starting point for conversations. 
  • Social and Emotional Learning: Design a learning environment that feels safe for students to thrive through implementing social and emotional learning practices. This includes affirming students’ many identities – cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and more—and lived experiences. Provide space and practice for both intra- and inter-personal skills such as social and self-awareness, as well as opportunities for students to connect to one another. Possible activities include journal writing based upon personal experience or in response to an oral history or other primary source. Inclusion of Afghan authors and poets, and individual or group presentations about cultural traditions at home or within the diaspora would also make visible the richness of Afghan history and culture. 
  • Create a Personal Archive: It is never too late to start a personal archive. While it is perfectly normal to mourn what has been lost, it is also possible to inspire healing, joy, and purpose in documenting new experiences. To reduce anxiety and level the playing field of past artifacts to choose from, teachers may encourage students to create an archive of the academic year that draws from students’ writing, school publications (newsletters, blog, yearbook, etc.), computer or mobile screen shots, class art, and many more. Celebrating today can be just as important as remembering the past. 

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