A wave of Afghan teens arrived suddenly — and changed everything at a Chicago high school
Last fall, 18-year-old Omar showed up at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park without papers or ID. As more students followed, teachers rebuilt school from scratch.By Elly Fishman
Josh Zepeda hopes to eat his lunch. It’s just past noon and he’s yet to have a moment alone at his desk. As he steps towards his desk in the back corner of the library at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, Zepeda, who is in his fourth year as the school’s dedicated refugee and immigrant social worker, hears a student call his name.
“Mr. Zepeda!” she yells from the front of the room where she holds her head inside the door frame. “There’s some kind of problem. The boys. ”
“Great,” Zepeda mumbles. “Of course there is.”
The girl waves for Zepeda to follow her. When he returns, he’s accompanied by three Afghan students and an American-born Latino boy who is visibly agitated. Zepeda tells the group to sit down on the couches stationed in the center of the room. He turns to the Afghan trio first.
“First things first,” he says, “when there’s a problem —”
“You don’t touch people,” the American-born boy interrupts in a heated tone.
Zepeda pauses and turns to the student. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says calmly. “This is not my first rodeo. I got you.”
Truth is, there’s no playbook for this school social worker, who must confront new issues daily as more Afghan refugees arrive. Located in an area of the city with a critical mass of resettlement agencies, this polyglot public school is a landing place for newcomers — more than half the students are refugees or immigrants. But the close to 70 students from Afghanistan who’ve arrived at Sullivan in just a few months present unprecedented challenges, not only because of the speed of their arrival but also the disparate needs of students.
Some cannot read and write, even in their native languages.
The rapid change has put a strain on all corners of the school. Both daily arrival and dismissal routines are crowded, even chaotic, affairs. Hallways are packed with teens, and some classes now top 30 students. The need for translators, in person and on language lines that provide services over the phone, have skyrocketed and so have the demands on staff like Zepeda. And, despite appealing to CPS for more funding midyear, Sullivan has received no additional money. The school must adjust to these changes on a budget that was already stretched thin.
Adaptation, in other words, has become a daily exercise.
These challenges are not isolated to the walls of Sullivan. With a record 100 million people displaced around the world, including 3 million Afghans, and the war in Ukraine adding to that tally every day, the Rogers Park school stands as an example of the kinds of challenges and transformations unfolding in schools and communities across the globe.
Zepeda takes a breath then continues with the Afghan students. He explains that when they have a problem with another student, they must find an adult in the building to help.
A young Afghan woman, her hair pulled half-back and her backpack hanging off her shoulders, tells Zepeda that her American classmate took pictures of her without permission.
“Why you do this?” she asks the boy angrily.
“There’s no picture of you,” he exclaims. “I don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about. I was playing games on my phone and then like 20 of those guys came up and started touching me.”
The two start arguing, and Zepeda moves himself between them, stretching his arms to create a physical barrier. He’s already checked the boy’s phone. There are no pictures. This is a simple misunderstanding that escalated far too quickly.
“Everybody is from a different culture,” Zepeda explains. “We don’t all speak the same language and everybody is feeling crazy right now.”
Zepeda tells the American student to wait in the back room of the library. As he walks away, the boy shakes his head. “We gotta control these kids,” he says to Zepeda.
Zepeda gives the boy a reassuring pat on the back. “I want to thank you for holding back today,” the social worker tells him. Zepeda understands the boy’s frustration. The rapid influx of teenagers who speak little to no English, have endured severe trauma and have fled their homes with nearly nothing has been jarring. And that’s for a school which, in the past, has welcomed waves of teenagers fleeing from Syria, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He disappears for a few minutes. When he returns, he’s gathered more than 20 Afghan boys. Once they are seated, Zepeda pulls up a chair. He leans forward and looks up at the group.
“We gotta have a talk.”
Omar, an early arrival from Afghanistan to Rogers Park
Everything changed at Sullivan High School last November when the school began receiving Afghan refugees. Even by Sullivan’s standards, the count was high: Some 70 new students enrolled between November and May, and they are still coming. By June, administrators predicted, one in seven students at Sullivan will be an Afghan refugee. And while the school year will soon end, and students will scatter into a summer of uncertainty, most will return to Sullivan in August. There, they will find themselves among even more refugee newcomers, some of whom may even be Ukrainian.
The Afghan teenagers are hardly a monolith. Diverse as the school itself, they include students like Omar, who spent part of his childhood in a rural area where he had little formal education; Aziz, a junior from Kabul’s upper-middle class who fled after the Taliban takeover because of his father’s ties to the American embassy; and, even Sadiya, a sophomore who, after five years in the United States, now finds herself helping bridge old and new worlds. (WBEZ agreed to use the students’ first names to protect family members still living in Afghanistan, since they may remain in danger under Taliban rule.)
Students also come from a variety of ethnic groups including Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and Nuristani, each of which speak their own language and practice specific traditions. That means they also have to learn how to get along with each other.
Omar was the first Afghan student to enroll this year. Sitting in Annmarie Handley’s English Language Learner room with his hair in a high-top fade, he watched as his class ballooned from eight students — four of whom were from Central and South America — to nearly 30.
Omar arrived one November day at Sullivan without announcement or family and enrolled himself in school. The 18-year-old had spent most of his life in a rural province where he worked as a tailor, and he had fled the country alone.
This morning’s lesson builds on a pronoun unit the class has been working on for a couple weeks. Omar sits attentively, his pencil held upright, as he studies the large television screen at the front of the room. There, Handley has a projection of her notebook which features a short, simple list: I; You; He, She, It; We; They.
Though learning English grammar is new for Omar, he’s had some exposure to written Pashto. Not every student in Handley’s class is in such a position.
Sitting across from Omar are three hijabi. They are soft-spoken and spend much of the class huddled together puzzling their way through the lesson. The young women are among a group of around ten Afghan refugees who came to Sullivan unable to read or write, including in Arabic.
Most are teenage girls from rural provinces where, under Taliban control, access to schools was limited if not forbidden. Teaching students without any literacy skills presents Handley with a unique set of challenges. “It’s like I’m teaching three different classes,” she says. In response, Handley tapped Rachel Brick, an English and bilingual Spanish teacher, to focus on the students’ specific needs.
Brick exudes optimism down to a set of sunny yellow nails. She has spent her career working with students learning English, but in order to reach this new set of Afghan teenagers, she’s had to start from scratch.
Normally when Brick would teach the English alphabet, she’d start with a picture dictionary. “You’d have a ball for the sound ‘buh,’” she explains. “But these students don’t know the word ball. That led me to realize that if we wanted to support them, I needed to give them something in Pashto.”
With the help of an Afghan student, Brick created an English Pashto phonetic picture dictionary. The document, which is six pages long, lists words in Pashto and English for each letter of the alphabet. Brick worked to find words in the two languages that share the same meaning and initial sound. The letter “d” and sound “duh,” for example, is described by the Pashto word “dohl” and “drum” in English.
Brick has encouraged students to say words out loud, and sometimes she even plays charades with the group to help communicate meaning. However, she has never lost sight of the fact that her students are young adults.
“Our students might be emergent in their print literacy, but they know how to read body language,” says Brick. “They know how to read facial expressions. They know how to read the energy of a room. I never wanted them to feel babied.”
For Omar, this kind of attentive instruction is precisely why he keeps showing up to school rather than taking a job. Getting an education, he says, is his top priority.
Aziz, piecing together a new life on his own
Aziz leans over his backpack, which he’s placed in front of him on the cafeteria table. The bag, like everything the junior now owns, is new. When he arrived in the United States, he came with nothing but the clothes he’d been wearing for nearly two weeks and his passport.
Around him, the school cafeteria is alive with sounds. At one table a group of Congolese girls laugh hysterically over a YouTube video. At another, several South American students gossip in rapid-fire Spanish. Aziz’s table is crowded with nearly ten Afghan boys who speak in a mix of Pashto and Dari. The table is covered in trays filled with partially eaten chicken nuggets — Sullivan started offering halal meats earlier in the year to accommodate the growing number of Muslim students — and several boys sit hunched over their phones immersed in games of PUBG, the popular mobile battle royale game. A few nurse cans of Monster drinks they bought as part of the celebration of Eid. Others discuss the merits of action movie stars Dwayne Johnson and Keanu Reeves, whose simple language and unhurried speech are particularly well-suited to new English speakers.
Aziz’s life imploded on Aug. 24 when he heard that the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. “We thought it was impossible,” recalls the 18-year-old. “We thought it was fake.”
But when Aziz rode his bike to school the following day, he saw members of the Taliban lining the streets. He heard the sounds of gunshots, too. Lots of them. The news, he realized, was real.
The change in regime put Aziz and his family in danger, and they immediately decamped for the airport. After hours standing among the crowd outside the building, Aziz lost track of his parents and all but one of his siblings in the chaos.
Aziz had no way to reach his family. An American soldier had pulled him and a brother into the airport where they eventually boarded a plane. He didn’t speak to either of his parents until nearly two weeks later when he arrived at Fort McCoy, the military base in northern Wisconsin that was transformed into a temporary shelter for Afghan refugees. There, he borrowed a phone and learned his family had not made it out of Kabul.
He and his brother would have to navigate life in America on their own.
The transition has been hard. “I had such a good life in Afghanistan,” reflects Aziz, who often looks through photos on his phone that remind him of the world he left behind. “But in America, I’ve learned that life is not easy.”
In the past few months, Aziz’s lessons in adulting have come in quick succession. He’s had to find work at Taco Bell, open a bank account and pay bills. He’s bought all new clothes and furniture and learned to use the public transit system and cook. So far, he’s mastered pasta and canned beans. “Being here without my family is very hard. I miss them,” explains Aziz. “I came to America with nothing. No house. No money. Nothing. I’ve had to find it all myself.”
Aziz spends each day simply trying to keep afloat. He’s not the only one. Many young Afghan refugees made the journey to America alone. Some connect with family members once they arrive in the U.S., while others depend on volunteers and resettlement agencies to help them rebuild their lives. “These kids have so many basic needs — clothes, food, internet,” says Josh Zepeda. “We’re just putting out fires left and right. We haven’t even been able to get to the trauma work yet.”
But that doesn’t mean students like Aziz aren’t carrying burdens. In fact, says Nate Sivak, the youth education coordinator at the resettlement agency RefugeeOne, for many Afghans, their trauma remains very raw. “Most refugee populations have time to marinate on the circumstances in a secondary country before coming to the United States,” says Sivak. “But these Afghan refugees are going through that difficult trauma here in Chicago. There’s a lot of grief and disbelief.”
Sadiya, a translator who weaves together two distinct worlds
Sadiya dressed up for school today. Stepping out into the hallway, the 15-year-old sophomore wears a traditional Afghan dress, a garment made of synthetic velvet and chiffon accented with gold details. She’s paired the dress with strappy white sandals and obsidian black lipstick. Sadiya, much like her chosen outfit, walks two worlds at Sullivan.
After resettling in Chicago five years ago, Sadiya speaks near-perfect, accentless English. She knows the latest viral memes and popular TikTok pranks. She sings along to pop stars Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. And perhaps most importantly, Sadiya understands American school and how to navigate it. That’s why Josh Zepeda tapped her as what he calls a “student guide” for new Afghan arrivals.
Refugee student guides are among Sullivan’s most important tools in supporting newcomers. The goal is to pair every new refugee student with a classmate from a similar background. This, says Zepeda, is one of the best ways to help ease students into a new, unfamiliar school environment. And lately, Sadiya has been busy.
Whenever a new batch of students arrives at Sullivan — which these days is nearly every week — Sadiya shows them how to open lockers and where to find the bathrooms. She also reminds students to respect their teachers and ask for help. “I tell them Sullivan is a place that will help them with their future,” says Sadiya. “That it’s a good school where they’ll make a lot of friends.”
But despite acclimating to American life, Sadiya has never quite felt at home herself. Not until the latest crop of Afghan students started to arrive. “They just understand me in a way my American friends never did,” she explains. “We talk about missing home and our families and what it’s like to feel like you’re in two different places. We’re there for each other. We’re like a family now.”
It’s that ability to toggle between the two worlds, says Zepeda, that makes Sadiya invaluable. “She understands both cultures,” says Zepeda. “It’s huge.”
Balancing the expectations of a public, secular American school while honoring cultural and religious traditions is in constant negotiation at Sullivan. And even students like Sadiya can’t bridge every divide.
Take Ramadan, the most holy month of the year in the Muslim faith. After granting the boys a space to pray during the school’s seventh period, several staff members noticed that daily prayer was taking longer and causing students to miss more class time. “I understand that prayer is hugely important,” says Zepeda, who has even prayed with the boys on occasion. “But as soon as they start taking advantage of the situation or lying to me about it, that’s when we have a problem.”
After several conversations between staff and students, Sullivan staff brought in a respected member of the Afghan community to help resolve the situation. Now, the boys take 15 minutes to pray and are back in class shortly thereafter.
Sivak of RefugeeOne puts it this way: “When a big group of students arrive so quickly, there are going to be these kinds of clashes,” he says. “It’s important to be thoughtful about such a sensitive topic, but I also think you have to ask, ‘Are these behaviors coming from a Muslim or from a teenager?’ ’”
Back in the library, Zepeda has spent the last 10 minutes trying to sort out the events that led to the threat of a fight between Afghan boys and another group of male students. The facts remain murky. One Afghan boy says the whole thing is a misunderstanding. Another says they were approached first. A third plays dumb. The rest say nothing.
“Ok,” Zepeda says, frustrated. “I’m going to check the security tape. If you weren’t involved, you can leave.”
When Zepeda returns, he describes seeing on the tape five Afghan boys zeroing in on the one American-born student. One, in a fit of dramatic flair, even jumped over a table.
“You guys turn a little problem into a big problem,” says Zepeda, now raising his voice. “You cannot do that.” He emphasizes every word for additional impact. “There are certain things in this culture in Chicago that you don’t understand. You guys need to relax. You are asking for a fight.”
Over the next few minutes, Zepeda continues to hammer in the point. When he finishes, he tells them to return to the library at the end of the school day. He wants to shepherd the boys out of the building to avoid another potential blowup.
When the final bell rings a couple hours later, the teens obediently return. Zepeda keeps the Afghan boys until nearly 4 p.m. to ensure the block is clear when they exit the building.
While Zepeda can’t control what happens outside the halls of Sullivan, he needs tolerance and empathy from the community the Afghan teenagers are entering. That’s one reason Zepeda encourages students to connect with neighbors and take jobs at local businesses. He also runs summer programs like “Discover Chicago” as a way to introduce new refugees to the city — and to, in some ways, introduce the city to its newest residents. In order to successfully integrate refugee students, Zepeda, and Sullivan as a whole, cannot operate in isolation.
As the exhausted social worker walks them out of the building, he shares one last piece of advice.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
It’s advice Zepeda will continue to give as long as the boys keep showing up for school.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” Follow her @elly33. Taylor Glascock is a freelance photographer based in Chicago.