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Ed. Magazine

Memories of a Grandfather — and Caring Teachers

A personal understanding of why support is critical for refugee learners
Illustration of girl with grandfather
Illustration: Jason Schneider

I clasp my grandfather’s hand as we walk through the boisterous market, beads of sweat forming on our foreheads. I choose a juice box and turn towards our house, but soon enough, someone notices him: “Asalaam alaikum haji sahib.”

Almost everyone in the little market down the street from our modest, clay house in Peshawar, Pakistan, where we as Afghans sought refuge, seemed to know him. When I reflect on my childhood, I see my grandfather, a tall man who wore a black and white turban with white Afghan clothes every day I spent with him. His graying beard poked my face as I leaned on him. We lived in a house with my four uncles, a room for each uncle and their families. The most unusual thing about my childhood was that my brother and I were the only cousins whose father was in college in the United States. My grandfather filled my dad’s absence, spoiling us with snacks and taking us everywhere with him.

Zuhra Faizi

At the time, more than 20 years ago, I didn’t know what “refugee” meant. My relatives created their own community, celebrated weddings, spoke Dari, bought new clothes, and my aunt decorated our hands with henna the night before Eid. I was faintly aware that we weren’t from Pakistan and that my other grandparents and aunts lived in Afghanistan, that our home had cool weather, taller mountains, and sweet melons. Now as an education researcher, I think about the importance of my family’s support in my trajectory to Harvard and the ramifications of the lack of these very support structures for so many refugee learners.

After my parents moved our family to the United States when I was six, they made sure that we would stay connected to Afghanistan. We would speak with relatives on the phone and plan summer trips. As the concept of family, which included my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, shrank with our move to the United States, the mosque, the Colorado Afghan community, and school expanded our connections to enable new relationships. In Colorado, I loved learning and planning elaborate presentation posters; my art projects were displayed in school and in the public library.

Connecting with American, largely white peers, however, was not easy, making the one-hour lunch break in the cafeteria unbearable on most days. After 9/11, the distance between my classmates and I widened. While my classmates chatted about yearbook photos and football games, I pondered how we would be able to send money to Afghanistan to pay for a cousin’s operation without being accused of funding terrorism. On some lunch breaks, I would retreat to the school library, scanning aisles of books searching for anything close to my culture. A book about a Jewish and Palestinian friend. An Indian girl who is married off young. Orientalism was not a part of my vocabulary then, but I could not engage with books that painted experiences of “other” societies as distant and alien, putting them back after reading a few pages. Why were these worlds so dreary and depressing? I had Palestinian and Indian friends at the mosque in Colorado who were energetic and funny with dreams and hopes and connections to many homes.

Thriving in school without healthy relationships and a sense of belonging seemed impossible. I was fortunate, however, that a few of my teachers showed curiosity and created space for me to express and explore my interests. Mrs. Howe, my seventh-grade social studies teacher who smelled like roses, shared her experiences attending an all-girls’ Catholic school as she inquired about hijab and Islam. After 9/11 and the subsequent global war on Afghanistan, she would gather articles about Afghanistan and ask about my relatives. On some days, I would stay in her class and miss French, the last class of the day, pouring out my heart to her about the war, media coverage, and family. When I transitioned to high school, Ms. Clapham, my government teacher, helped me get through the next three years. (I finished a year early.) She met my parents, visited our home and the mosque, and taught three of my younger siblings. Ms. Clapham was even at my doctoral dissertation defense at Harvard in May 2021. For me, what made these teachers special is their recognition of the enduring connections we all have to home, community, and family.

“While my classmates chatted about yearbook photos and football games, I pondered how we would be able to send money to Afghanistan to pay for a cousin’s operation without being accused of funding terrorism.”

Not all my experiences with teachers were positive. In the eighth grade, a year after Mrs. Howe retired, my science teacher asked how Muslims greet each other. When I explained that “asalaam alaikum” means “peace be upon you,” he remarked, “That’s strange since Muslims blow things up.” My heart sank. I was silent for days, trudging the hallways with his words repeating in my head. The following year, a couple of boys I had known for many years would jokingly shout words like “jihad” and “terrorist” when I was in their vicinity. Moments like these made me realize the vitriolic power of mainstream and facile media narratives. Despite my frustration with these narratives, I had always assumed my teachers and classmates could separate me from these war-driven narratives. The recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis, that people with “blue eyes and blonde hair” are not the same as those other refugees and are more deserving of assistance reinforces how little has changed after all these years.

The support I received from some teachers, as well as the shocking realizations of the pernicious image many Americans have about Muslims and Afghanistan, inspired me to pursue graduate studies after attending the University of Colorado Boulder. My intrinsic passion for Afghanistan and the possibilities of education coupled with a yearning to investigate frequent criticisms hurled at Afghans for not valuing education led me to the Ed School. The context of war, poverty, and past heavy-handed state policies rarely come into simplistic narratives about Afghans. At every step, I remember my turban- wearing grandfather who cradled me in his arms when my dad was studying in the United States; my cousins in Afghanistan who are learning English and computer skills in private courses and through lessons on the radio; the children I met in 2018 during my dissertation fieldwork who were displaced by war to the outskirts of Kabul, where they arrived to class half an hour early to work on art projects with their teacher, a man who resembled my grandfather in appearance and character.

Recently, through Harvard’s Refugee REACH Initiative, I created a resource for American teachers on ways to support Afghan refugee students, drawing on my research on education in Afghanistan as well as affirming experiences with my own teachers in the United States. However, I have also been contemplating how much we demand from teachers. Ms. Clapham and Mrs. Howe were exceptional in cultivating genuine relationships and learning experiences. I sincerely believe we enjoyed each other’s presence. Yet, it should not be teachers alone who have responsibility to counter destructive media representations of Muslims, immigrants, or refugees; to fill curricular gaps or search for engaging, nuanced literature and resources; to challenge xenophobia within schools and in the country. So many wonderful teachers already do this work but most often without the instructional and institutional support backing them. My resource is inspired by them and seeks to elevate their practices. However, they should not be alone in the process of creating safer schools and communities where children thrive, where their connections to their transnational homes are validated, and where future prospects are supported.

Zuhra Faizi, Ed.M.'17, Ed.D.’21, is a researcher at REACH at the Ed School and a lecturer at MIT.

Download Faizi’s resource at

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