Have a bowl. Have a fork. Have a knife. Have a spoon.
Sara studied the sentences she had written, as part of an assignment to record the contents of her kitchen. Her English teacher, Miriam Bosveld, looked over her desk.
“Make sure you say ‘I’,” Bosveld said, pointing to himself.
“I?” Sarah asked.
“So you can write ‘I have’ and you can also say ‘a’.”
Sara stared blankly at her teacher in their suburban Minneapolis classroom, her pencil hesitating; she was used to knowing the answers.
She had been an accomplished student in her mother tongue, Dari, when she arrived at her school in Kabul, Afghanistan last August to find the doors closed. The guard told her and her friends to leave; the Taliban were coming. Sara returned home in tears. “They’ve closed the school and we’re going back to the dark side,” she told her mother, who also started to cry.
A few days later, they escaped. Sara resumed her studies at a school for non-traditional students in Minnesota last March – just as the Taliban sparked global outrage for breaking their promise to allow girls back to high school.
As the girls of Kabul cried and protested, Sara looked forward to school every morning at Crystal, though on the cusp of her 19th birthdayand birthday, she felt like a freshman as she tried to grasp an entirely new language. Here she had a project, a future, endless perspectives.
‘If I was [in Kabul]’, Sara said later through an interpreter, ”what would I do without going to school and going out?”
Sara’s parents, Rana and Mohammad, left Afghanistan for Iran during the first Taliban regime in the 1990s, when girls and women were excluded from school and the labor market. The couple regretted never having learned to read and write amid so much turmoil, and they returned home in 2003 when Sara, their first of six children, was born, determined to give her the opportunities they had lost. (The Star Tribune withholds the family’s surname after citing security concerns.)
After puberty, girls face an array of restrictions in traditional Afghan culture, and even before the Taliban returned last year, some neighbors criticized Mohammad for giving Sara so much freedom. They chatted. Where was she going without her parents? Couldn’t he control his daughter?
Sara attended an all-girls school in the mornings and spent the afternoons running her own boutique for brides to have their hair, makeup and henna done. She ran a sewing business from her home late into the night.
At the end of Sara’s first year, militants attacked her school with artillery fire. Sara and her classmates defied teachers’ orders and ran outside, covering their faces with scarves in case the attackers threw acid at them. Rana ran to Sara after hearing the explosion from their nearby house, praising God that she was alive.
By Sara’s last year, Taliban fighters were advancing through the countryside. His maternal grandfather, a few hours from the capital, had been threatened by the extremist group to stop working for a company that served American military bases, but he refused to be intimidated.
When Sara went to visit him for a family celebration last June, she was horrified by what she saw outside the door: her grandfather’s body, drenched in blood. He had been killed by the Taliban.
She collapsed screaming. Sara loved him so much she felt like she had lost a limb.
She feared that the Taliban would then come for her father. Mohammad worked as a security guard at Kabul airport. “Your father works with infidels,” some acquaintances said, avoiding their family. Two months after killing his grandfather, the Taliban took control of the city. Yet Mohammad showed up for work day after day as desperate mobs besieged the airport fleeing Afghanistan. Gunshots exploded. People died before his eyes.
He was about to get a special immigrant visa that would bring the family to safety in the United States, and his boss told him it was time to escape. And so, a week later, Sara fought through the crowds at the airport alongside her family. As she held her 10-year-old brother’s hand at the door, a woman tried to grab him and pretend he was her own son to tell him about the theft.
On the plane, Sara was curled up on the floor, knees to her chest, drowsy but too scared to sleep. Two days later, a suicide bomber at the airport killed 183 people. Relatives feared the family died, unable to reach Mohammad after his phone broke in the commotion. By then Sara’s family had landed in Kuwait. They moved to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for two months and arrived at a hotel for evacuees in suburban Minneapolis in November.
The shock of it all lingered. Sara collapsed at Camp Atterbury and passed out at the hotel. When the ambulance arrived, her father told a paramedic that she had PTSD.
Sara had always been ambitious, active and outgoing, and the empty days dragged on. A case manager took his family to the Mall of America, where they ate burgers, rode roller coasters and shopped for clothes; they had left Kabul with only what they were wearing. Several days she walked in front of the hotel in tears, overwhelmed by all she had lost. Sara’s spirits lifted when she passed other people on the street.
“I saw the American people when they walked free without any fear or anything,” Sara said, “and then I thought I’m one of them now.”
Sara was still at the hotel on the day in December when she should have graduated from high school in Kabul.
By the time the family moved into a home in Golden Valley in January, they learned they were too old to return to a traditional classroom. Sara enrolled in a public school in Crystal where she could take English classes to get her GED and then go to college.
She had taken some English in Kabul and Indiana and knew the alphabet. But she started at the lowest of four levels, and her teacher, Bosveld, predicted that it would take Sara at least two years to learn basic English.
Sara’s first assignments involved flipping through a notebook of pictures and words and writing down what she had and what she didn’t have.
One morning she wrote “yes” next to a picture of a car. His spirit was still in Kabul, where his family led a comfortable life and had a vehicle. Now they couldn’t afford it.
Sara had to take two buses for nearly an hour to travel less than 8 kilometers to school. Once she missed the bus and a stranger drove her to class after finding her crying on the street. His father found the bus route to his job at a St. Louis Park print shop so long and winding that he started traveling by bicycle. They all had a good laugh when some elders at a party for Afghans gave Sara’s little siblings a few dollars and the kids presented the bills to their dad saying he could now buy a car .
Bosveld told him to write no.
“So you would say I don’t have a car in Minnesota,” Bosveld said.
Sara wrote that she had a dog. But the animal, too, was in Kabul.
Then came the questions about the parents she had. Sara paused for a long time when she saw “grandfather” in her notebook.
Finally, she wrote “yes”. She had lost one grandfather, but the other was still alive in Afghanistan.
Sara was the youngest of 10 students in the class. She sat next to a couple from Tajikistan, sometimes leaning on them for help as their languages were similar.
But she was eager to befriend everyone. She picked up a visiting West African classmate’s baby boy from daycare, gave him a spin and offered him his potato chips. She excitedly showed her classmates the eyeliner and lipstick she bought at Target. Sara missed makeup and wished she could get her old business back. Instead, she was considering a part-time job preparing food at a medical clinic.
She claimed that English was easy, except for spelling. Bosveld gave the class a list of eight words to spell and then gave them the correct answers. She asked Sara how much she was entitled to. “Three,” Sara said, raising just as many fingers and laughing sheepishly.
Bosveld told him everything was fine.
“We’re just practicing,” the professor said.
Gradually, Sara learned to talk about weather, geography and dates. Bosveld knew Sara and many of her classmates wanted to study nursing, so she led them through discussions about medical jobs. Sara learned to play bingo.
She stayed 40 minutes after school each day to wait for the bus, catching up with her Afghan friends on WhatsApp as the concierge arrived. The friends lamented how their lives had stagnated under the new regime.
When Sara came home, she liked to run. In Minnesota, Sara noted, neighbors never confronted her father about his whereabouts. Instead, they fixed his dad’s bike and blew snow from the family’s driveway.
Bosveld paired Sara with a Mexican student for an assignment on communicating future projects. Sara flipped through a book showing words and pictures of activities, and excitedly showed a picture of a birthday party. Her birthday was in four days.
“Is it happy birthday?” her classmate asked.
Sara nodded, adding, “Nineteen.
“Oh, family party? »
“Yes…food, cake,” Sara said.
Sara showed her a picture on her phone of Kabuli pulao, a rice dish she was going to cook. She decided to hold a celebration a few days earlier, to avoid the start of Ramadan. The next day, Sara went to the Cub Foods bakery and picked out a red and white marble cake.
To joke with the family friend who took her to the store (and performed for this story), Sara held up a “9” and “1” birthday candle with a mischievous laugh, reversing the numbers of her age. . Back home, everyone gathered as she poured sodas and streamed a YouTube show from her favorite Afghan singer, Aryana Sayeed. A friend from the hotel dropped by with flowers.
Sara has blown out her candles.
His birthday wish was the same as the last: finish school and go to college. This time, she also hoped to have her own business in America. During their meal, Sara said she might want to open an Afghan restaurant, one of the dreams she had for her new life. Mohammad was encouraging but amused, noting that he could not follow his aspirations.
“Do you want to do all this? he said smiling.
“Yes,” Sara said. “I want to do it.”