The story of Arifa

Submitted by Lisa G. Currie, adjunct professor of ESL and developmental English, Lord Fairfax Community College, Middletown, Virginia, USA

When I met Arifa in 2003, a fourteen-year-old Afghan native whose entry into public education had begun September 6, 2001, the girl did not understand the stares, the comments, or the contempt the community cast in her direction after September 11th. She did not comprehend the international events that had occurred five days after her entrance.

She spoke little to no English and lacked the educational background to understand global relations, geographic space and social misunderstandingsl. An orthodox Muslim who had been dropped into a rural Protestant Virginia community, Arifa’s only understanding was that she was in school, walking school corridors with other boys and girls, going to classes, and riding a school bus. In the back of her mind, her dream of college was forming.

But the gossamer college image began to fade: Besides trying to categorize seven years of lost education and grasp American social and cultural mores, Arifa was a full-time translator for her parents and three younger sisters, even though Arifa’s English skills were only developing. Between trying to learn English and apply the language to content subjects, which were never clear due to the lack of earlier educational opportunities, Arifa was obligated to her family’s needs. Combined with classwork, she accompanied her parents and sisters at all hours of the day and night to doctor appointments, visits to social services, insurance offices, and emergency rooms.

During these long high school days, classroom instruction failed to fill in the educational gaps and after-school and evening tutorial sessions with me only brought more frustration. It was then that Arifa admitted that her Afghan background, lack of transportation, father’s misunderstanding of higher education, and her fledgling language skills were monumental hurdles too difficult to overcome: College was but a dream. At that point, we made a pack to make the dream come true.

Four grueling years later, Arifa was recognized at her high school graduation for her personal educational accomplishments: an advanced degree diploma after only five years of real education and three local scholarships to the community college. After convincing her doubtful and cautious father that the community college was a safe place and completing financial aid forms, I took Arifa to campus, waited for her to complete the class, and returned her home safely. Spending hours in tutorials, Arifa was able to manage only two or three classes per semester because, besides class and hours of homework, she would spend nearly fifteen hours a week with various tutors. Sleep hours were the hours sacrificed as Arifa remained the family translator.

After five years, Arifa earned her associate's degree in science and became a phlebotomist. She got a job at the local hospital after graduation. Her income exceeded her father’s income within the first six months. Following in her footsteps--with their father’s blessings--are three younger sisters. Arifa’s educational determination has become the family’s educational model not only for her sisters but for numerous female cousins.