Afghan high school student Zahra Rahimi is making a name for herself in Alexandria

Zahra Rahimi sits outside Alexandria City High School (staff photo by James Cullum)

Zahra Rahimi spoke no English when she and her family moved from Afghanistan to Alexandria four years ago.

Fast forward to October, when First Lady Jill Biden recognized her at the White House as one of 15 “Girls Leading Change” around the country.

The 17-year-old Rahimi, who one day wants to run for Congress, recently sat down with ALXnow to discuss the honor and her journey.  The Alexandria City High School senior is the eldest of six siblings and moved with her family to Alexandria in 2019, where she first enrolled in the International Academy at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.

“That’s the goal,” Rahimi said, when asked of a future Congressional run. “Since childhood, my goal has always been to be a voice for others, and share other people’s voices, because I know how it feels to not have the power, or to be unheard.”

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Rahimi founded a club for Afghan students and helped create an English literacy program teaching dozens of refugee children with Northern Virginia Resettling Afghan Families Together. It was NoVA RAFT founder Dan Altman who nominated Rahimi for the Girls Leading Change award.

Last year, Rahimi was also named as a student representative on the School Board. She says that her work with the Board allows international students to have a seat at the table.

With an eye on becoming a politician, Rahimi is an advocate for women’s rights and, while automatically accepted to George Mason University, is still applying to and waiting to hear back from colleges.

ALXnow: What do you miss the most from Afghanistan?

Rahimi: Aside from my family, I miss Afghanistan. That’s the place where I was born, where I grew up, where I have memories — not one, not two, I have thousands of memories that I made there. It’s just my country. I was born there. I belong there. It’s the place that I will never forget.

ALXnow: How long did it take for you to feel comfortable speaking English?

Rahimi: I’m still learning English, and I still have some difficulties. But after six months, I could communicate or ask questions in English, even though I was still learning.

ALXnow: What’s the best part of attending all of those School Board meetings? Aren’t they boring?

Rahimi: I think it not only gives me but also other students, especially students at the International Academy… someone to be a voice for them or share their opinions in the board meetings. It’s made me aware of how people are thinking, how everything is going on in the community.

Something else that really, really taught me over these past two years is that believing in myself, that I cannot only advocate for myself and for my rights, I also have the ability and opportunity to do it for others.

ALXnow: When you were nominated, you had to do a Zoom call with the White House. What was that like?

Rahimi: I spoke with a group from the White House and they asked about my background and the things that I was doing and what I thought about America. Then I sent an email to Mr. Altman and told him that I just finished the interview, and he told me that he got an email from [the White House] because they were connected and he said that I made them cry.

ALXnow: What was the story you told that made the people cry at the White House? 

Rahimi: I told them about my story, that even though I was very young in Afghanistan, I had a supportive family and my dad and my mom really supported me. But there were people in the community who weren’t really supportive of girls doing anything, and I really wanted to ride bikes.

I was seeing my brothers riding bikes every day, and the only place I could ride a bike was in our yard at home. And it really broke me because I wanted to have that experience of going outside or to the parks, riding a bike, and I couldn’t. And that was something that not only me, but also other girls weren’t having that opportunity.

ALXnow: When you got to the U.S., did you get a bicycle?

Rahimi: Yes, and that was the best day of my life, because we came here and after a few months after everything got settled down, my dad found a job and everything was getting back to normal… and then my dad taught me how to ride a bicycle.

I rode the bicycle around William Ramsay park and that was the best day in my life, and I remember crying and not showing my tears to my family, because they would ask, ‘Why are you crying?’ I was crying out of happiness, that I can finally ride a bike.

ALXnow: What was the experience like at the White House?

Rahimi: It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. Being an immigrant and then being invited to the White House was a big thing. And then seeing Dr. Jill Biden, and my parents being in there. That’s something every child wishes for, to make their parents proud.

ALXnow: Did the First Lady say anything to you?

Rahimi: Yes. I talked with her about the tutoring program and everything. She said how proud she is that we’re doing everything, and it was a really good experience for me.

ALXnow: When you first arrived in the U.S., there were few Afghan students in the International Academy. Now there are dozens. Do you feel like a leader in the International Academy? 

Rahimi: I feel like I’m in a leadership position, like an older sister for the students of the International Academy. I like to see it that way. You help your siblings out of love, and I want to see myself being like the oldest sibling for kids and students at the International Academy.

ALXnow: With all of your experience, what does it take to be a good leader?

Rahimi: Something that I have learned about good leadership is that you cannot be a good leader only by the skills that you have. You have to share it. And next to that is [having a good] community. People in the community and friends, families, members of the community and everyone who supports you and are always behind you, who you can rely on to make you become better and to support you.