They launched a club to help Afghan refugees. 2 Fairfax Co. students saw it grow to welcome many others

graduate addressing classmates
Annandale High School grad and Dunya Club co-founder Sosan Barakzai speaks during her graduation ceremony on June 3. (Courtesy Fairfax County schools)
graduate getting diploma
Annandale High School grad Husna Basiri gets her diploma from Principal Shawn DeRose. (Courtesy Fairfax County schools)
Members of the Dunya Club. (Courtesy Husna Basiri)
Members of the Dunya Club. (Courtesy Husna Basiri)
graduate addressing classmates
graduate getting diploma
Members of the Dunya Club. (Courtesy Husna Basiri)

In 2021, as thousands of Afghan refugees arrived in the U.S., Annandale High School’s Multilingual Education Department Chair, Meredith Hedrick, reached out to students Sosan Barakzai and Husna Basiri.

Hendrick asked whether the pair, who are both Afghan immigrants, would be interested in helping to launch a club for students new to Fairfax County schools, as they once were. They’re uniquely positioned to help, Hendrick told them, because they speak the language and can relate to the experience of acclimating to a new environment.

Those conversations led to the pair helping launch the club, which initially was created to help Afghan refugees. It started with about six students, the two said, but grew to as many as 30 this year. Barakzai and Basiri renamed it the “Dunya” club. The word means “world” in Farsi, and they felt it was an appropriate title, as the club welcomed students from Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia and Central America.

Barakzai and Basiri have now both graduated and are planning to attend The George Washington University in D.C. next year. But the infrastructure they created within the club will remain, helping dozens of others get used to life as Virginia students.

“When you first came here, you really need somebody’s help,” Barakzai said. “People like me and Husna, we experienced how much we needed help. We wanted to give back. We wanted to do the same thing.”

The weekly Wednesday meetings emerged as a safe space for the students to practice their English. The students also help each other with homework or prepare for upcoming tests.

Because navigating a large school campus could be daunting for students who haven’t done it, club members leave their classes a few minutes early to help their peers find their next class. They do so until the students can confidently navigate the school buildings on their own.

The club also helps new students address other challenges, such as what type of food the cafeteria serves and whether it’s halal, or when a topic may involve a conversation with a school counselor.

“My favorite part of the club was, since we had students from different backgrounds, discussing the culture and helping build relationships and being friends,” Basiri said. “We had cultural meetings, potlucks and parties for them. All the students would bring their own food.”

At first, the group was launched with the goal of helping the new students get prepared for school. But its purpose evolved, and the older members led conversations about how to apply for college or scholarships.

“While it seems easy to know how much credits you need to graduate, it seems easy (to pick) which diploma you should do or how to find your GPA, it’s very hard for the students to find these things, to even understand how to work email,” Barakzai said.

The group also motivates new students to get involved with extracurricular activities. Hendrick, the department chair, used grant funding to buy equipment for cricket, so students can play after school.

Now that they’re graduating, the pair is making sure everyone has the skills in place to advocate for themselves.

“I’ve realized from personal experience that asking questions can be very terrifying,” Barakzai said. “I let them know in the beginning that asking questions is the only way for you to expand in yourself being who you are, and to achieve whatever you have passion for in high school, college or in life.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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