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Refugee Afghan kids recognized for learning English in Alexandria

Salma Faqirzaava wants to be an attorney, but that future was impossible in Afghanistan. Now she’s back in school and learning English in Alexandria.

Eight months ago, Salma and her parents moved to Alexandria, where she enrolled in Alexandria City High School, finding herself navigating the busy hallways of the second largest high school in Virginia.

“I knew zero English when I arrived,” Salma said through an interpreter. “When I first came I didn’t know the alphabet. Now I think I’ve learned 60% of how to read and write, but I still have a problem speaking it.”

The 16-year-old hadn’t been to school in two years. The Taliban shut down girls schools following the 2021 U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, and Alexandria received hundreds of families as refugees.

On Saturday, Salma and nearly 70 Afghan children were recognized for participating in a summer reading program. Three times a week throughout the summer, the kids attend reading classes at William Ramsay Recreation Center (5650 Sanger Avenue).

The program is led by Northern Virginia Resettling Afghan Families Together (NOVA RAFT), a nonprofit that supports the refugees with furniture, groceries and other basic needs.

“A substantial group of Afghan students at the high school are years behind,” said NOVA RAFT co-founder Dan Altman. “Initially they were incapable of comprehending what was going on around them, basically. Some of the teenage girls here were pulled out of school when they were in fifth grade in Afghanistan.”

Altman said that most of the 70 kids in the program had a second grade reading level or lower, and that their growth has been quick.  The reading class was part of an ongoing educational, cultural, and psychosocial  program that started eight months ago.

Altman said he needs volunteer tutors.

“We need more volunteers who will work directly with the kids,” Altman said. “We provide all the training and everything else. That would be huge to be able to get some more volunteers.”

The recognition ceremony at the recreation center was attended by a roomful of Afghan refugees, as well as Alexandria City Council Member Alyia Gaskins, Council Member Canek Aguirre and School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi.

“Of course, keep learning English, but don’t forget about your language, culture and history,” Aguirre told the families. “They are not only important to you, but also to this country. Your perspectives that you bring is what is so beautiful about the diversity of the United States. And to all the young kids, most of the jobs that I got were because I could speak another language.”

Salma says she wants to be an attorney to help families with legal issues like hers. She said she misses her siblings still in Afghanistan, and that even though she can cook the same food here it tastes different.

“I want to study the law,” she said. “I like that the schools are open here and everyone can study whatever they want.”

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