U.S. schools are helping Afghan refugee youth adapt, but challenges remain


Refugee youths go through unimaginable circumstances when they leave their homeland due to crisis or violence. According to the American Psychological Association, studies suggest that displaced children experience a multitude of stress factors connected to mental health issues, such as PTSD, anxiety, somatization, and traumatic grief. This can lead to external problems like difficulty with their studies or behavioral problems at school, which is why it is important for refugee youth to receive support beyond just assistance with learning English.  

The San Diego Unified School District is the second largest in California, with 226 public schools and other institutes serving more than 121,000 students in preschool through 12th grade. IRC partners with seven schools in the district—four middle schools and three high schools—based in City Heights and El Cajon, where more than 300 refugee students are enrolled, including those from Afghanistan. Since the areas have long been refugee resettlement hubs, refugees tend to have more support resources to access. Many of the youths that IRC serves are English learners and have gaps in their education.

“Our school systems just aren’t necessarily built to help those youths on their own,” Johnson said. For schools that do not have a history of receiving many refugees, he added that “their programs aren’t necessarily built for that kind of continuum of enrollment, where refugee resettlement comes in anytime a year and the teacher has to be prepared and … trained in how to help that student while continuing to teach and build the skills of all the other students.”

Through its Refugee Education, Acculturation, Civic Engagement, and Health program (REACH), IRC provides students wrap-around services as they navigate the U.S. education system. In addition to services like tutoring and college application support, REACH offers social and emotional development programs to help affected refugee youths deal with trauma. This includes things like helping them learn how to regulate their emotions and cultivating their socialization skills through team sports.

Eighteen-year-old Wahida Hamdard is a freshman at San Diego State University. She resettled with her family in the U.S. in 2016, after they had left Afghanistan and relocated to India as refugees for several years. Hamdard enjoys her studies now but shared that it was a tough adjustment in the beginning.

“Language is the main thing. Not being able to understand what your teachers are saying, not being able to talk to your classmates was very difficult,” she said, noting that mastering basic computer skills was another big challenge early on. During her high school years in El Cajon, she had access to tutoring services and joined the Peacemakers, a youth development program under IRC. The program’s diversity of students—many of whom come from other countries and share similar backgrounds—put Hamdard at ease.

“[The Peacemakers program] was like my comfort zone,” recalled Hamdard, who hopes to one day work with the U.N. to help other refugees. “It was the only place where I could freely express myself because I didn’t think anybody was judging me.”

On the other side of the country, Virginia’s Fairfax County has a similar history of supporting refugees and immigrants. As the tenth-largest school district in the U.S., the Fairfax Public School District serves more than 178,000 students through grade 12, with 200 languages spoken among them. Since August, about 206 refugee students from Afghanistan have enrolled in the school district, 10 of whom are enrolled at Annandale High School.

The English for Speakers of Other Languages (or ESOL) program at Annandale, which has a student body that is majority students of color, is the school’s largest faculty department. Many students who arrive at Annandale are refugees and immigrants from countries including Guatemala, Sudan, China, and Afghanistan. These students receive a subject curriculum that is tailored to English learners, in addition to English language and life skills development classes. They are also supported by “peer-helpers,” students assigned to help newly arrived students to establish a routine and get familiarized with the facilities.

Peer-to-peer empowerment is a key element of Annandale’s support system for incoming Afghan youths. Afghan students who have resettled at the school have even begun creating a guidebook to help the next cohort of students adjust.

“It’s been a really pleasant surprise,” said Meredith Hedrick, an ESOL instructor who chairs the department. “These kids … who are taking the lead, they’ve only been here for a year, and they came during COVID. It’s pretty incredible to have that quick of a leadership position emerge,” she noted. But schools like Annandale, where rich support programs for refugee students exist, still encounter challenges in supporting incoming students.

“Every new student is a new desk, a new computer, a new person in the lunchroom,” Hedrick continued. “So it’s not just the teachers who are impacted, but the custodian, the technology office. Everyone is working so hard to just keep up with the pace.”

Sometimes it is not only refugee youths who receive additional support—their parents, too, need help to support their children’s educational development while adjusting to life in the U.S. For example, IRC offers intergenerational workshops where parents and students learn how to navigate the public school system together.

But making sure that students and parents are aware of what resources exist is equally important.

“I didn’t know I can go to my [school] counselor any time and talk to her about things that I’m struggling with. I learned that later on when I lived in America for quite a while,” Hamdard said. “Just letting the student know that ‘oh, this is a resource for you, you can go and ask here,’ that’s, I think, a very important thing.”

U.S. schools will likely see hundreds of more students from Afghanistan in the upcoming months as thousands of refugee families are still being processed at military bases abroad.

“I think I’ve had every school district reach out to me specifically, like, ‘hey, can you give us a guesstimate of … how many youths should we be expecting to be coming in and enrolling in our schools,’ and things like that,” Johnson said. But school districts won’t know how many refugee youths they will receive until families are resettled. That uncertainty will have a greater impact on schools that may not already have substantial support resources for refugee youths.

Johnson says his organization is working with school districts to identify and bolster support for schools that need additional help for their refugee students. But how schools meet those expectations ultimately depends on their responsiveness to the arrival of these new students.

“Specifically working with students, you know, I think that it is a partnership,” Johnson said. “The schools are really going to need to be proactive, as they [already] are, to meet this surge.”

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab among other places. Follow her on Twitter @npishak.

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.





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