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'We just want to survive in this country.' Refugees fight to attend school in Modesto

Morsal Amini, a refugee from Afghanistan is pictured Friday, March 16, 2018 at her Modesto home. Amini was denied enrollment last month at the Language Institute at Davis High School.
Morsal Amini, a refugee from Afghanistan is pictured Friday, March 16, 2018 at her Modesto home. Amini was denied enrollment last month at the Language Institute at Davis High School.

Two refugee girls from Afghanistan got their chance at an education when Taliban rulers were driven from their home country.

Their mother brought them to the United States in 2016 for the dream of an education and success. Now, their education is on hold after they were denied enrollment last month at the Language Institute at Davis High School.

Morsal and Nargis Amini thought they could transfer from Pitman High School in Turlock, where they got a good start. The sisters need to learn more English to take classes in science and other mainstream subjects, earn their diplomas and attend college.

But the focused and diligent students have not attended school for two weeks and fear their opportunity is slipping away. Advocates insist that Morsal and Nargis are 17 and 18 respectively, raising questions about whether they are being denied basic access to public education.

"These are diligent students working to improve themselves and their language skills," said Gilbert Howard, a volunteer for the refugee resettlement group, World Relief in Modesto. "It seems to me that a better solution would be to let them finish the school year as transfer students."

The issue has to do with the Jan. 1 birth dates placed on their documents to avoid confusion with the different calendar used in Afghanistan. The Jan. 1 dates suggest that Morsal and Nargis are 18 and 19 years old, which means they won't be able to earn enough credits to graduate on time.

In an ongoing issue with Modesto City Schools, Title III of the state Education Code allows young refugees to stay in school until age 21, but the school district has not adopted the policy.

In cases like this, the Language Institute, an accelerated English language program at Davis, has a paralegal to verify and notarize the true birth dates of refugee students from the Middle East.

Some people familiar with the Amini sisters are afraid the school district policy will have ramifications for other refugee and immigrant students in the Modesto area who need to learn English to succeed and be self-sufficient.

One candidate for Congress took up the students' cause last week. "Access to education is a fundamental civil right," said Josh Harder, a Turlock Democrat running in congressional District 10. "In a community like ours, where we are home to the second largest refugee community in the nation, I am both shocked by this injustice and disappointed."

Modesto City Schools issued a statement on the matter Friday, saying that enrollment decisions are made with students’ best interests at heart.

"We look at how we can help students graduate from high school and attain their post-secondary goals,” the statement read. "There are some cases where students are so behind in credits that they will be unable to make up the credits and graduate on time. These students may be better-served in another program, like the (Stanislaus County Office of Education's) Comeback Kids."

Advocates for the Amini family said the county's Comeback Kids adult education program is mostly online learning and independent study. And the Amini sisters deserve better than that.

In a country where only 3 percent of girls attended school under Taliban rule, Nargis attended school there for eight years in her home country and Morsal put in seven years.

Morsal said their father disappeared in Afghanistan and the family was never able to find him.

The family, living in the capital city of Kabul, decided to leave the dangers of war-torn Afghanistan and first stayed in Indonesia for two years and five months. The girls, who have two brothers, did not attend school while living in Jakarta.

A case worker advised their mother to bring the family to the United States for the rewards of an education and opportunity. The family resettled in Turlock, where they lived for 18 months, and moved recently to a larger, less expensive apartment in Modesto. Turlock's rental costs were too expensive.

The family thought arrangements had been set for attending Davis High. A younger brother was enrolled at Davis and the youngest attends elementary school, but Morsal and Nargis were turned away. Their mother tried to appeal the decision but wasn't approved for a meeting with a school official.

Polite and composed, Morsal said Friday she needs a better understanding of English to take physics and chemistry classes. Her goal is to become a dentist or nurse; Nargis has previously expressed interest in working as an accountant.

Morsal, who grew up speaking Farsi, said she enjoyed getting a good start in English from Patty Hubble, an English-as-second language teacher at Pitman. Howard, the World Relief volunteer, taught the teenagers to drive and Nargis worked part-time at a pizza parlor in Turlock.

Morsal said the family would not have moved to Modesto if they had known the sisters could not attend school there.

"My mother is concerned we are not going to school and she is worried about her daughters' future," Morsal said. "We just want to survive in this country. It's to the benefit of all that we are (independent) here."

The Muslim family was reticent last week about an interview and photographs in keeping with traditional customs in their home country. In Afghanistan, more girls are receiving an education, increasing from 3 percent of school attendance under Taliban rule to almost 40 percent today, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

School Board President Amy Neumann said Monday the district superintendent is open to more meetings with refugee groups trying to assist the students. Neumann would not discuss any specifics regarding the Amini sisters due to their privacy rights or discuss the district’s concerns with enrolling English learners older than 18.

“We will have a workshop in late spring to look at some of our policies and to work through this issue,” Neumann said.

When the same issue arose in late 2016, district officials said they didn't want to see 20-year-old students mixed in classrooms with younger teens.

Lindsey Bird, the coordinator of the Language Institute, said school districts in other counties give refugee students extra time in high school. At Turlock High School and Pitman, refugee or immigrant students who are English learners are offered a fifth year of senior status if they meet criteria, a school district spokeswoman said.

Bird has tried to work out an equitable policy with the Modesto school board.

“We are dooming new members of our community to be under-educated and forcing them into dependence, when they want to be independent and contributing,” Bird said.

Information was not available from local resettlement organizations on the number of refugees brought to Stanislaus County in the past two years. The last full year of the Obama administration, 2016, was a big year for refugee resettlement in the U.S., with California taking in the most or 7,900 of the 85,000 refugees, according to the Pew Research Center.

Bird said students with a high work ethic, like the Amini sisters, should advance swiftly through the accelerated Language Institute program to mainstream classes.