Nooria Luddin and her younger brother, Samiullah, fled Afghanistan in March 2020 to live with their father in Annandale.
Their father, Tahir, brought his five oldest children to the United States – leaving behind his wife and eight younger siblings – to ensure their safety. He was worried the Taliban might target him and his family because he had previously worked for several western European and American journalism outlets. But Tahir noted it was also important to him that his children receive an education in the United States because they could not get it in Afghanistan.
“My kids are unable to go to school because of security reasons because the Taliban were threatening my kids’ new school,” Tahir told InsideNoVa.
Tahir is awaiting the arrival of his wife and other children, who were among thousands of Afghans who fled after the Taliban takeover earlier this month. They are currently in Qatar.
When his family arrives, one of his priorities will be enrolling the children in school. A spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools said faculty and staff are already helping Afghan refugees enroll their children and providing them with additional support to help students adjust to their new environment.
“We will continue to share any community resources available to support new families as well as current families who are being significantly impacted,” the spokesperson said.
When Nooria, 17, and Samiullah, 16, arrived in the United States, neither could speak English or knew how to use a computer.
“[Nooria] was only able to say ‘Hi, my name is this,’” Tahir said.
A few weeks after their arrival, the siblings enrolled at Annandale High School. Tahir said he began helping his children learn basic English words and phrases using online tools, such as YouTube.
“Nooria and Samiullah had also never used a computer before,” Tahir added. “So, for the first couple of months it was so hard, but luckily it was the pandemic, so I was not at work, so I was helping them.”
But Tahir said he could not have helped his children overcome these challenges on his own, and noted that the dramatic change in Nooria and Samiullah’s English proficiency and personal growth over the past year is because of the Fairfax school system’s English Language Instructional Program.
“It’s amazing; I cannot even express how much I’m satisfied with the teachers,” Tahir said. “I am surprised by my daughter and my son when they speak. I said, ‘Have these guys been here for 20 years?’ But it’s the first year. ”
Between September 2016 and March 2021, the number of students enrolled at Annandale High School who speak a language other than English increased from 454 to over 600. Most of these students are refugees or immigrants from countries, including Guatemala, Sudan and China, who moved to Fairfax, in part because of the amount of resources available to English learners and their families.
Of the roughly 1,900 students who enrolled at Annandale during the 2020-21 school year, about 27% received English Language Learner Services, including Nooria and Samiullah, making it one of the largest English-learner programs in the county.
Meredith Hedrick, Annandale’s department chair of English for Speakers of Other Languages, said that percentage does not include students who are proficient in English but also speak another language.
Overall, about 80% of the students are or were English-language learners, she said. “So that means eight out of the 10 kids – English is not their first language.”
Between 2020 and 2021, Fairfax schools increased its budget for programs serving K-12 English learners from $95.4 million to $100.4 million. The budget for the current school year includes 50 new positions to support students utilizing English learner services, along with technology specialists and 18 new social worker and psychologist positions.
The goal of these programs is to increase English learners’ proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing, as well as to facilitate a student’s ability to argue, inform and explain ideas across different disciplines.
Hedrick noted that in addition to the academic component of the program, Fairfax is committed to providing students with emotional support by offering access to counseling, among other things. “Because if you don’t have the social, emotional, you’re not going to have the academic and you’re not going to have the language.”
For parents such as Tahir, the benefit of these programs is clear. In the last year and a half, Tahir said his children went from learning the alphabet to speaking in complete sentences. Tahir also noted that not only are his children learning English but they have enjoyed the experience because of the enthusiasm and compassion shown by teachers such as Uyen Nguyen.
Nguyen, 41, has been teaching English learners at Annandale for five years and in Fairfax for 12 years altogether. Like many of her students she was also a refugee, fleeing Vietnam in 1992 when she was just 12 years old.
Back then, Fairfax was just starting to offer English learning services to students like Nguyen. Nguyen said she started out in a general education class, which was difficult because most of her classmates were English speakers and they made fun of her accent. But after a few months, she joined an English learner class, which made a huge difference.
“Being a teenager coming to a new country, there’s so much confusion,” she said. “But then you come into the school and you’re in this program with all these really caring teachers, and they are making this community where you feel like you belong and you meet all these other students who might be coming from different parts of the world but we all were a community and we were experiencing similar things, and it really helped shape us.”
Nguyen said through the English learner program that she met some of her lifelong friends and formed important relationships with her teachers, who inspired her to become an English learner teacher herself.
“It was the teachers who made a huge difference,” she said. “The way that they help us build a community within the classroom.”
Nooria and Samiullah said they couldn’t agree more.
“I like that program because it teaches me English,” Nooria said. “And this was really enjoyable for me and the teachers were so kind.”
Annandale’s principal, Shawn DeRose, said that last week the school enrolled two new students who recently fled Afghanistan with their families. DeRose said Annandale will be able to accommodate any potential boost in the English learner program enrollment that may come with new Afghan students.
“Our school traditionally has strong partnerships with community organizations to help students who are in need of basic items such as school supplies,” he said. “We will continue to lean on our community ties to support this influx, if needed.”