For this student, helping Afghan peers succeed fulfills another dream

The Washington Post
June 9, 2024 
Zahra Rahimi has lived out many dreams in the past five years.

The first time she rode her bicycle outside in Virginia — something she couldn’t do in her home country of Afghanistan, which her family fled five years ago. The day last fall when she and other young female leaders were honored at the White House. The moment she was accepted into William & Mary — her top choice — with a full scholarship.

And this month, as she sat in her cap and gown, a rainbow of cords draped around her neck, alongside more than 800 graduates of Alexandria City High School.

“I never thought I would even be able to finish school, especially when I was in Afghanistan,” said Zahra, 17. “I never saw any of these opportunities coming to me, but right now it feels like a miracle, like I’m in a dream.”

In her five years in Virginia, Zahra became a standout student. She helped start a club for Afghan students at the high school and a community tutoring program for peers learning English, became the first student representative from the International Academy to sit on the School Board, and was recognized by the Virginia House of Delegates.

“She just continues to show up. She shows up and gets involved,” said Alexandria City School Board Chair Michelle Rief. “And I think as she’s done that, she’s realized how much of an impact she can make as a student.”

Zahra and her family arrived in Richmond in the fall of 2019, then came to Alexandria. The oldest of six children, Zahra said her father decided to move the family from Afghanistan for safety and better education opportunities. In Virginia, she connected with uncles and cousins she had not seen in years, but she still missed her grandparents and other relatives back in Afghanistan.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 69 Afghan students enrolled in Alexandria City Public Schools for the first time.

In August 2021, more than 85,000 Afghan nationals arrived in the United States as part of the massive U.S. evacuation when the Taliban took control of Kabul. Thousands landed in Alexandria, and their children enrolled in the public school system.

The school district’s Afghan population boomed: More than 400 students enrolled during the 2021-2022 school year.

Students learning English as a second language, especially older ones, often struggle in school. In Virginia, English learners score the lowest on the state’s standardized tests in every subject and have one of the highest high school dropout rates. School systems have limited resources to help students catch up, and even in the Alexandria district, with two International Academies designed for students who recently arrived from other countries, English learners can struggle.

Zahra, who herself spoke little English when she arrived, quickly noticed how many of her Afghan peers were having difficulties. She wanted to help.

“My goal,” Zahra said, “is to advocate for those who are in need and be a voice for others.”

Then they realized that what students really needed were English lessons.

They launched a program last summer that continued into the school year and offered about 100 middle and high school students English lessons for roughly seven hours a week. Altman said the program has a waitlist of 60 to 80 students.

Altman said he understands that the school system has limited resources. There are few employees who speak Dari or Pashto — the two major languages in Afghanistan — leaving students with stronger English skills, like Zahra, to act as interpreters for some of their peers in class.

“Behind her there’s a whole bunch of students, some are thriving, but many are not,” he said. “She shows the potential, if you had a really good student who got really good support, [of] what the system could do.”

On Saturday morning, Zahra stood at the front of a room at William Ramsay Recreation Center, interpreting for Altman as they addressed and praised students who completed the tutoring program this year. A couple of students in the course improved their reading by five levels over the year, they said. On average, students advanced by about 2.9 levels.

“Some of you guys might be wondering, what is the future of my child in their education?” Altman said, addressing parents.

He pointed to Zahra and her close friend, Hosai Rasuli, whom she worked with to start the language program and who is also heading to college on a full scholarship. “We are really excited to see more in the coming years,” Altman said.

Zahra said she felt more proud of the success of the other students than she did of her own. Seeing their improvement, she said, made her feel like she is actually making a difference.

Zahra and Hosai also worked together on other projects, including starting a high school club for Afghan students and creating a short documentary about the experiences of fleeing Afghanistan and the education restrictions that girls in the country still face. Dozens of people attended the documentary’s premiere at George Mason University in January.

“So many people were inspired coming out of that,” Altman said. “Her goal was to give a voice to those people, to inspire people to take action. And I think that’s ultimately what happened.”

It was Altman who nominated Zahra for the White House’s Girls Leading Change award. In October, Zahra and her parents spent the day at the White House as first lady Jill Biden celebrated 15 young women leaders from across the country. It made her feel as though she had finally found a home in the United States.

“I’m an immigrant and I have been chosen to go to the White House,” she said. “It just made me feel like maybe I’m not just an immigrant, but also part of this community.”

Earlier in the school year, Zahra wove through the crowded hallway at Alexandria City High, turned into her classroom, flipped open her Chromebook and patiently waited for class to begin.

“Don’t ever think that because of your journey to this place, that you don’t belong at a four-year university,” teacher John Humphrey told the class.

Humphrey was one of Zahra’s closest mentors at school. During her freshman year — which was conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic — Humphrey said Zahra would stay on Zoom through her lunch break nearly every day. The two would chat, giving Zahra an opportunity to work on her English.

Humphrey said Zahra has become a role model for Afghan students. He has heard students say they want to join the School Board because that was what Zahra did. He sees her paving a path for others.

It was Humphrey’s class that in part helped Zahra prepare for college. She’s headed to Williamsburg with a full-tuition scholarship from the Posse Foundation. She plans to study political science and international relations and hopes to one day be elected to Congress.

On the morning of her graduation, Zahra stood in a classroom waiting with other students to board a bus to the ceremony. Hosai pushed Zahra’s long hair behind her shoulders to get a better look at her friend.

Zahra wore cords for the various clubs she was in and a stole with the Afghan flag on one side and the American flag on the other. The moment felt so bittersweet. She was so excited for the next chapter but nervous to leave her home again.

Getting ready, she adjusted her cap. It was covered in red glitter with silver butterflies and a special message: “Let your dreams be your wings.”

For this student, helping Afghan peers succeed fulfills another dream