When 6-year-old Asra Hajizada started kindergarten, she didn’t know any English and was too frightened to enter her Bethlehem school building each morning.
But by the end of this past school year, Asra — whose family came to the United States from Afghanistan last July — was earning grade-level test scores in English and playing games at recess with her classmates at Asa Packer Elementary.
“It was the first time that she was being separated from her family, so there was a lot of anxiety coming into school, leaving her parents and just being uncertain of the environment,” said Hilari Takacs, who teaches English for speakers of other languages .
Asra would often come to school crying and wouldn’t go into her classroom until her teachers comforted her and assured her it was safe.
“We had to be really sensitive to the environment where she came from as we were experiencing some of the anxieties along with her,” Takacs said.
Asra’s family left their home in Baghlan, in northern Afghanistan, and arrived in the US just before the last American troops left the Middle Eastern country.
The US military spent 20 years in Afghanistan, arriving shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Following the US withdrawal, the Taliban — a militant Islamist group — took over the country.
Because of the work Asra’s father did with the US military at a transportation depot in Afghanistan, the Hajizada family got a special visa to come to the US, offering them protection from any Taliban reprisals in their home country. Once they arrived in Bethlehem, the family moved in with friends who came to the US from Afghanistan decades ago as refugees.
“Here is good because we can have a good life and in Afghanistan [we can’t],” said Mina Hajizada, Asra’s older sister. “Every day there was a war. We came home with the sound of war.”
Mina Hajizada, 22, works with her brother and father at a local hospital. She was also hired by Bethlehem Area School District as a language guide to work with her sister at the elementary school. Mina Hajizada and her family speak Dari, a dialect of Persian used in Afghanistan.
“I was so happy to come to the school [and] meet the lovely kids and ladies here,” she said, using Google Translate and Takacs’ help to speak with The Morning Call. “I was so lucky to have a family here.”
Takacs said she helped Mina complete the clearances she needed to work at the school, and developed a bond with both sisters. Takacs slowly pieced together the family’s story and learned about their experiences living in Afghanistan and eventually fleeing the country.
“We were learning [Afghan] people talk about the Taliban like it’s somebody they encounter every day. They’re almost desensitized to it,” she said. “Imagine how these people are living their lives in constant fear. … We really had to understand why some of these anxieties were occurring.”
Lindsay Jordan, Asra’s kindergarten teacher, said recess was another difficult part of the school day for Asra.
“That wasn’t what they did in Afghanistan,” Jordan said. “She was never allowed to leave the home without a male.”
Takacs and Jordan both discovered Asra’s triggers as the school year went on, and worked together to help Asra feel safe by giving her time to play before focusing on academics.
“We let her play with dolls and little figurines or Play-Doh, just to get her to feel safe and know that Asa Packer and my classroom were safe places for her,” Jordan said.
Takacs and Asra also worked on English skills together by acting out pretend scenarios.
“She absolutely loves imaginative play, so I really used that a ton,” Takacs said
As her vocabulary grew, Asra would pretend to take her teacher’s takeout order with an old landline phone Takacs brought in for her to play with. She would then fashion French fries or pizza out of Play-Doh and serve it to Takacs, who would act exasperated at the total on her imaginary bill.
“It was great because you could see, as the language would develop, the food would get more intricate that we were ordering,” Takacs said. “It wasn’t that I was just ordering fries. It was like, ‘Do you want your fries with ketchup? Do you want your fries with ketchup on the side?’
“Things like that you could really see that she was growing and understanding more [and] being able to use the language, as well,” she said.
As her language skills grew, so did her confidence. By the end of the school year, Asra conquered her fear of recess.
“She would go from that observer role to by the end of the school year, she was running the games,” Takacs said. “She was in charge and telling the other kids what to do.”
Mina Hajizada said it was hard for her parents at the beginning of the school year as Asra struggled.
“They were very worried because every day we were calling home, and they could hear her crying on the other end of the phone,” Mina said.
But now her parents are happy seeing Asra’s growth. The 6-year-old reads books at home and still speaks about her teachers and friends from school.
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Mina is also settling into life in the US, she said. She is taking English classes this summer at the Bethlehem Employment and Training Center and learning how to drive.
The Hajizada family moved into their own house recently. But that means Asra will start first grade next year at a new Bethlehem school.
“It’s a little bit sad having her not being part of our school anymore, but I know she’s going to be a great student,” Jordan said.
Takacs said she will also miss the Hajizada sisters.
She knew all those stressful mornings spent making Asra feel safe at school were meant to teach her something, and this past school year working with Asra will be one she always remembers.
“She really has a special place in my heart,” Takacs said. “She’s just this little gift.”
Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at 484-903-1732 and firstname.lastname@example.org.