Anisa Amani Teaches Many Afghan Refugee Students. In Her Classroom, Her Home Language Is a Super Power.
By Kathy Pierre
“I’ve always been a very proud Afghan even though I’ve never stepped foot on the land,” says Anisa Amani. “I’m extremely proud to be a walking, talking billboard of an Afghan Muslim American.”
A Teach Plus California Policy Fellow, Anisa teaches third grade in the Arden-Arcade area of Sacramento; her class is composed largely of refugee students, two thirds of whom are from Afghanistan. The area of Sacramento is a hub for Afghan refugees, many of them recipients of the Special Immigrant Visa, open to those who worked in some capacity for the United States while in Afghanistan. In the ’80s, Anisa’s own mother entered the U.S. as a refugee and met her father who had come to the States to study in the ‘70s.
As a student, Anisa struggled academically. She, and her parents, knew she needed more help but it wasn’t until she was a junior in college that she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Prior to her diagnosis, she learned to work around it on her own, practicing reading paragraphs ahead of time in her head before volunteering to read aloud and getting extra tutoring.
Aside from undiagnosed dyslexia, Anisa also faced Islamophobia at school, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. She remembers being chosen for a classroom leadership position in sixth grade, two years after 9/11, as the leader of the daily Pledge of Allegiance. “The idea behind that was so everyone in the class could watch me to make sure I wasn’t a terrorist and make sure I was pledging.”
“I became a teacher as an act of revenge against a system of oppression that I’m working to dismantle,” she says.
Anisa never planned to teach Afghan refugees and never thought she’d be speaking Farsi/Dari, one of Afghanistan’s languages, in her classroom. When she was finishing her master’s degree, she met an administrator at a job fair who mentioned a high-needs school that needed a Farsi/Dari-speaking teacher. She was immediately intrigued.
Her Farsi/Dari fluency comes in handy. Although some of her Afghan students speak Pashto, which she doesn’t speak, there are enough students in the classroom who speak both languages to build a bridge.
Teaching students who share a background and a home language with Anisa has allowed her to be more than a teacher to many of her students. She’s a resource to many of the parents as they try to get accustomed to the United States and Northern California. Her parents are also an extended resource.
“I’ll get a letter written to me from parents in Farsi/Dari or Pashto, and I don’t know what it says, so I’ll send my parents a picture and tell them to call me and translate it for me,” Anisa says. “There are times where if I’m forgetting a word or if a parent is asking me a question that seems very serious — like medical terms — I’ll ask, are you comfortable with me calling my mom because I want to help you but I can’t. And my mom will help me in that moment.”
The end of the nearly 20-year old war in Afghanistan and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal was hard, and continues to be hard, to process for Anisa and her students. Even more challenging: This was all happening in the first week of school as Anisa’s students returned to in-person learning after more than a year.
“I had students telling me their families are stuck there,” she says. “One student, during reading time, came to me and was crying because her family was in hiding and she was so afraid of the Taliban finding her aunt who was a local activist. This little girl is in third grade in America, safe and sound, crying during a quiet moment in the classroom because her mind travels over to her family. That’s a very regular thing in my classroom.”
Anisa’s students and families sometimes ask if she knows how they can get their families out of Afghanistan. She’s also been asked if she can sponsor visas for their family members, or cosign home loans for families who were outgrowing their apartments because they were expecting other family members to join them. Her heart breaks for these families who she cannot help because of responsibilities to her own family.
“It’s a really heavy emotional toll,” Anisa says. “I have students drawing scary pictures of the Taliban or people dying with blood everywhere. But at least I’m able to ask them, where did you see this, what makes you feel this way, what are you hearing at home. Other Afghan students are not able to be heard because they don’t speak English yet and that’s the part that makes me feel sad — even more sad is that there are some kids in other schools who don’t have anyone to go to.”
“There are times when I feel like I need a mental health day … but sometimes coming to work is one of the best things I can do because I’m really open with my students, especially about feelings. I will skip a math lesson to address somebody’s emotional needs. I’ll tell my students, today I’m feeling sad, and I want them to tell me when they feel the same.”
Kathy Pierre is Senior National Coordinator of Communications and Media at Teach Plus.