DALLAS – Zoya Bakhtiear was just a toddler when she left for America. She remembers standing in an airport in her home country of Afghanistan and feeling scared while her “whole family cried.”
“I was so sad that I would never see Afghanistan again,” she said.
Now 6-years-old, Zoya hardly seems like a girl scared by much of anything as she walks into her first grade classroom. She makes a point to smile at strangers, and she’s shockingly honest — honest enough to tell anyone about how her whole family cried when they left their home.
This was Zoya’s second year in a Dallas Independent School District summer program for children who were refugees. It’s designed to help address cultural differences and potential cracks in refugee students’ educational foundations in order to prepare students for the next grade.
For Zoya, it’s worked.
“I see her talking English a lot, and she is much more confident,” said Zeljka Ravlija, who has spearheaded DISD’s refugee outreach efforts since 2007 and is the camp’s program coordinator. “She is progressing very much.”
Ravlija was a refugee herself 20 years ago. When she came to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia, she had two teenage children with her. She felt overwhelmed by the new American culture, and often wished for someone to sit down with her and explain the ins and outs of American high school — like what a magnet school was, or what clubs her children could join — as they attempted to blindly acclimate.
Because of this, Ravlija feels she brings professional as well as personal experience to the program, which takes students through various classes just like a regular school day.
“Many refugee students have lived in refugee camps for a long time, or in their country there is war and they had interrupted education or no formal education,” Ravlija said. “When they come here, they face a whole new set of challenges.”
Those challenges include learning a new language and adapting to a new culture and social environment, Ravljka said. Some students even face poverty and discrimination.
Ravljka says she’s seen Zoya make great strides in the last year to overcome those kinds of challenges. With only 110 students in kindergarten through the fifth grade in the program and about a dozen adults working with them, it’s a more intimate and personal environment, too.
Zoya’s favorite thing to talk about is her baby sister, who is only 10-months-old.
“We both have gray eyes,” she says, widening them for emphasis.
Unlike in Zoya’s case, the U.S. is the only home her sister has ever known. But Zoya’s story isn’t completely unique. According to Ravlija, DISD welcomes around 300 to 400 new refugee students every year, most of whom live in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood.
More than a dozen countries are represented in the summer program alone. Students hail from everywhere — Thailand, Bhutan, Somalia — and the resulting diverse cultures are celebrated.
One of Zoya’s classmates is equally chatty Nurul Hashim, who lived in Malaysia and Burma before moving to Texas. She hates Six Flags — too scary — and loves McDonalds Happy Meals so much she dreams of them. In school, Nurul excels in vocabulary and reading, although she admits that she is “a little bit nervous for second grade.”
Despite those nerves, however, she is excited for the opportunity to continue making friends. Friendship, at the end of the day, is a priceless outcome from the summer program, Ravlija said.
“They are bonding, and they are making new friends,” she said. “I’m pretty sure every one of them would say that’s the best part of the program, that they are making new friends.”
The program also offers outreach to parents of students, just like Ravlija wished for 20 years ago. The almost monthlong event wrapped up at the end of June, but parents are invited to attend a school orientation in August that stresses the importance of school attendance, explains the ins and outs of the grade and builds a support system between families.
Unlike most students who shudder at the thought of school starting in the fall, Zoya radiates with excitement when talking about her classes, especially art class where she gets to draw and paint, and she doesn’t balk at the thought of second grade.
“I’m so happy that I’m going to learn everything, like multiplication,” she said.
While Zoya once didn’t know if she would ever see Afghanistan again, she is now counting down the days until next year when she and her family will return to visit those they left behind. And, when it comes time for the Bakhtiear family to say goodbye once again, Zoya will know there is a classroom waiting to welcome her back to Dallas.