Fearful that his children were in danger because he worked for the American military, Eltaf Samim’s father insisted his family flee Afghanistan in 2015.
On a cold night, Samim’s mother started packing and didn’t have time to answer questions. Because the neighbors were aware of Samim’s father’s work, the five kids may have been easy kidnapping targets, he thought.
Samim had finished ninth grade by the time the family left, but was often frustrated by the country’s education system. Teachers don’t care about talent, he said, and many students try to bribe teachers before exams to receive a good grade. He refused to give a teacher a gift for that reason.
A journey that took Samim and his family through Iran, Turkey, Macedonia, Austria and Germany ended in Fairfax County, Virginia, where Samim graduated from Mountain View High School in February. After going through seventh, eighth and ninth grades several times in different countries, Samim plans to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College after securing several scholarships.
“I hope that people realize that when you’re living in a community which is peaceful, it’s a blessing,” Samim said. “When [there’s] peace, there’s calm minds, and when there’s calm minds, there’s education, and you can learn stuff, and you can improve yourself.”
After fleeing Afghanistan, Samim and his family ended their trek in Germany, where the culture, atmosphere and language were unfamiliar. Attending class in Germany was rigorous, and Samim started in seventh grade, because he enrolled without his previous transcripts. He struggled in most classes, with the exception of English and math.
The teachers in Germany were helpful, Samim said, but urged him to solve everything himself before seeking help. He successfully completed seventh grade but had to repeat eighth grade because of his lingering struggles grasping the language.
Socializing during the five years he was in Germany was also difficult, Samim said, because of the language barrier. School staff noticed he was often alone and encouraged other students to get to know him.
“I really tried my best, I kept studying,” Samim said. “I really wanted to finish school in Germany.”
Samim successfully finished eighth grade the second time, and went on to begin high school. The concepts didn’t get easier, though, because “it doesn’t matter how good German you know, but still there’s a few words, there’s a lot of topics that you cannot understand, that you have to use a translator.”
Meanwhile, Samim’s father received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Germany, asking whether he’d like to advance in the process to obtain a visa. He did, and Samim and his family arrived at Dulles International Airport on March 31, 2021.
Upon arriving in Virginia, Samim was again apprehensive, wondering whether school in Fairfax County would resemble his experiences in Afghanistan or Germany. He took and passed entry tests, and at 20 years old began attending Mountain View, an alternative school in the county.
The teachers blew Samim away, and showed an interest in learning more about his history, he said. He was most surprised by receiving a laptop — it contrasted with his experiences in Germany, where carrying books around was the norm.
He regularly wrote for the Mountain View Mirror, the school newspaper, and inquired about what he had to do to participate in the school’s February graduation instead of its June ceremony. With the assistance of Mountain View staff, Samim took summer classes and was able to graduate in February. At one point, completing 50 outstanding economics assignments over a weekend was part of securing that achievement.
“In Afghanistan, most people dream of education,” Samim said. “Unfortunately, they cannot continue to their school because [of war]. Once you go outside, you do not have any hope to come back alive.”
With graduation, which Samim describes as his top accomplishment to date, behind him, he’s now honing in on finishing college, with aspirations to become an entrepreneur. In Afghan culture, he said, it’s common for kids to choose a career path at a young age. But his parents have provided him with guidance on how to slowly determine what comes next.
“[My father] always told me, ‘I will work. It is your responsibility to study,'” Samim said. “It is because without knowledge, life is meaningless. Without knowledge, life feels empty and dark.”