Afghan teen seizes American opportunities

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As he began to speak at the Refugee Student Achievement Banquet, Jamshid Forugh’s mind flashed back to when he arrived in the United States four years earlier. Megan Dougherty, a school liaison for diocesan Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services, had come up to him and asked him how he was doing. And Forugh had no idea what she was saying.

Now, as he was about to deliver a three-page speech that he had written in English, Dougherty stood in the audience, listening. “She saw me, (and in) that moment I kept remembering” everything that had happened since, said Forugh.

When he arrived in Fredericksburg in 2014, Forugh would talk with other Afghan teens about what they would accomplish in their new homeland. “One of them wished to have a very nice car, (one) wanted to have a boat. What I used to wish for was to speak English one day with no problem,” he said in near perfect English with all the self-assuredness of an American teen. “Here I am.”

Life in Afghanistan

Forugh was born in 2000 and grew up in the relatively safe city of Mazari Sharif in northern Afghanistan. When he was 6 years old, he started attending the neighborhood school. There were different shifts for boys and girls, he said, and some 50 students would cram into the classroom, sit on the floor and watch as one teacher wrote on the blackboard.

“There’s no technology” in Afghanistan, said Forugh, and the healthcare system is often inadequate. Some even travel to India for certain medical procedures. Many Afghans try to immigrate illegally through Iran into Europe, he said. 

“(In Afghanistan), there's basically no sign of life, no opportunities.” But because Forugh’s father trained policemen alongside U.S. forces, Forugh and his family had the chance to leave.

Afghan and Iraqi people who have worked with the U.S. military or government are eligible for a special immigrant visa, but it’s no guarantee, said Forugh. He and his family went through interviews, paid a lot of money for vaccinations and waited for a year and half before hearing they had been accepted. Then they had to leave, quickly, before the visa expired.

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Jamshid Forugh holds his baby sister, Diana, 1. ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

So they packed their bags, gave the rest of their belongings to charity and sold their home. “For the first time in my life I was in a plane — it was terrifying — and we went from Kabul to Dubai,” he said. “In Dubai I heard the word Wi-Fi for the first time.”

Settling in

A few months after arriving, Forugh started as a freshman at Stafford High School, with no knowledge of English. “The first year was so frustrating,” he said. “I used to have Google translate every little sentence.” Forugh remembers arriving at Junior ROTC class and after failing to understand the instructions, having an upper classmen walk him to the bathroom with his uniform, gesturing that he should go and put it on. Years later, as a senior, he led the class. “As a freshman I never could imagine it,” he said.

In Afghanistan, Forugh played soccer in the streets with his friends, using a “cheap plastic ball.” At Stafford, he played on the junior varsity and varsity teams. “I wore cleats for the first time,” he said. 

During his freshman year, Forugh got a 3.7 GPA; by his senior year, he had earned nearly a 4.0. 

Forugh’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by his teachers, and during his second year they named him outstanding sophomore of the year. The next year, he was junior of the year. Stafford High School opened in the 1950s, said Forugh, but he is the only student to have received the award two years in a row. The plaques marking the achievement hang in his room next to a plastic butterfly — a beloved symbol in Afghanistan. “I will never lose these,” he said. 

Looking ahead

“Once you leave your homeland, you're going to miss everything — I miss the food, my friends, everything,” said Forugh. But he’s embraced his new country and opportunities it’s given him. Forugh was the first Afghan student from his school to graduate with honors, he says with pride. In the fall, Forugh will attend Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and become a doctor. 

This summer, he’s working at Panda Express to earn money for college. He spent much of senior year applying for 300 scholarships. After reaching out to Dougherty, he applied to one available through the Fredericksburg office of diocesan Migration and Refugee Services.  He learned he won the scholarship at the banquet honoring refugee students June 27. Two hundred students, ages 5-18, teachers and parents were present. The Arlington office of Migration and Refugee Serves held a similar ceremony June 30. 

School liaisons such as Dougherty work throughout the year to help families like Forugh’s — newly resettled asylees, refugees and special immigrant visa holders — adjust socially and academically. A volunteer tutor is matched with each family to help students with homework and parents understand what comes home in their child’s backpack, said Laurel Collins, the Fredericksburg associate director. Sometimes they’ll take the students on trips to places such as the Baltimore Aquarium, or for older students, workshops to explain the college application process. 

For many of the newcomers, the chance to have their child receive an education is what made them leave everything they knew and come to the United States. 

“They’ve sacrificed everything so their kids can have a better future,” said Collins. That sacrifice has not been wasted — between the two ceremonies, there were nine graduating seniors, all of whom are headed of to college.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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