Clemente helps Afghan families adjust

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By Maya McFadden, New Haven Independent

February 9, 2022

Parent Dilawar Shamshad in Clemente, where more than 10% of students are now Afghan.

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When Zarghoona, a mother of four, immigrated to New Haven from Afghanistan five years ago, she didn’t know English.

She learned it with the help of her daughter, who was learning it at Clemente Leadership Academy. Then, Zarghoona returned to school to help newcomers from her homeland adapt to a new country, as an interpreter.

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Zarghoona has three of her children currently enrolled at Clemente, in eighth, fourth and second grades.

Her family arrived in New Haven in 2016 from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Like many other refugees, Zarghoona’s family received housing and schooling assistance from Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS).

Over the past year, as a new wave of Afghan refugees resettled here after the Taliban took over, Clemente has seen an increase in the recruitment of Afghan families.

Clemente currently has 19 Afghan families enrolled, with 56 students in total, up from 40 the previous year. Of the school’s 427 students, Afghan students make up more than 10 percent of the school.

“They are the nicest kids. They do a great job at our school,” Clemente principal Mia Duff said. “We are rich to have them here because of all the learning we learn about another culture.”

Three months after settling here, the Zarghoona children were enrolled in Clemente. At the time, the family only spoke their native language, Pashto.

Zarghoona, who lives on the Hill, last year worked as a Clemente Pashto interpreter and tutor. She described the job of teaching English to groups of children as a challenge.

Zarghoona decided to quit his job for better pay. She continues to do Pashto interpretation. “It’s not easy, I was very stressed,” she said.

Her second year student, who was 2 when they arrived, had an easier time learning the language because he learned English and Pashto at the same time.

The others, including Zarghoona, had to learn English from a Pashtun interpreter. Of the whole transition, “the hardest thing was the language,” she said.

Zarghoona enlisted the help of a friend to enroll in the New Haven Adult Education Center two days a week. She is a student in the English as a Second Language (ESOL) and GED programs. “It’s always hard to catch the words when people speak fast, but when it’s slower I understand everything,” she said in an interview at the school, which ended held in English. (She asked that her last name not be used and that she and her family not be photographed.) Over the past five years, she said she was grateful for the school’s help in his family’s transition to a new home.

“I can’t imagine learning like that in our country,” she said.

She said there were fewer schools available in Kandahar and she often worried about her family’s safety there.

Something Zarghoona never imagined he would do when he was in Kandahar, he was learning to drive. While in Afghanistan, Zarghoona and her children did not often leave their home. “We didn’t go out to our country. My husband was working, and that’s it,” she said.

Since immigrating to New Haven, she got her driver’s license to help her kids get to appointments when her husband is working.

She passed her road test on the fourth try. She had been nervous when they told her that her husband couldn’t join to help her with her English.

“My children are learning and very happy here. They hug their teachers and sometimes look at them as if they were a mother,” she said.

When New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) switched to remote learning last year, Zarghoona took a basic computer skills course at Adult Ed to learn how to use the internet and computer.

Zarghoona eighth grade student Bibi, 13, said she was bullied for not speaking English when she arrived at Clemente.

She worked hard to learn English to stop the bullying and catch up with her grades, and she succeeded.

Bibi has enjoyed the year so far as she prefers to learn in person. She didn’t like remote learning because “sometimes the internet was on and sometimes it wasn’t,” she said.

Bibi’s favorite subject is mathematics; she plans to become a doctor.

Clemente has among the most Afghan students enrolled in town, behind Barnard, which has more than 60 (as well as a center for newcomers to help them).

Clemente rushed to find Pashtun language tutors and interpreters for the refugee families, according to Principal Duff. They currently have two part-time employees and could use more.

“It’s an extremely important role that we play. We provide them with a safe learning environment and help them to make the transition, which is not easy, especially since some families have experienced trauma,” explained Duff. “It’s important that they eat meals regularly – breakfast and lunch are extremely important to all of our students. And it’s important that we connect culturally with them.”

“The role any school plays in adjusting to newly arrived students cannot be overemphasized. Especially a school like Clemente where so many newly arrived students spend the majority of their time and in doing so, are starting to build a base of who they are in a new country,” remarked Ann O’Brien, Director of Community Engagement for IRIS. “It really is a second home for many. Clemente takes the role they play seriously and they show it by surrounding students with caring staff, seeking out resources to support students, and connecting with families to keep them engaged.

“Perhaps the most authentic testimony to their role is that families are happy to send their children there and recommend the school to their friends.” Once students enroll at Clemente, English teacher Kelly Hebrank works with IRIS and school staff for necessities like seasonal clothes and shoes.

Clemente uses a “withdrawal model” for its refugee families: students, regardless of their first language, are immersed in English classrooms throughout the school day, then withdrawn daily for 40 minutes of tutoring in English.

Another challenge the school faces with some families in Afghanistan is that some cannot read Pashto, which further limits communication, Hebrank said.

“Teaching a language is extremely visual and ideally physical,” she added.

More than a third of Clemente students are labeled as English learners.

“It was an extremely difficult school year,” Hebrank said. “We need to prioritize as best we can to help families with low English proficiency.”

During the break from in-person learning, Hebrank visited the homes of several refugee families to help them learn how to use the Google classroom, submit class work and type on a keyboard.

When she couldn’t visit her family, she “spent a lot of time communicating through images of the keyboard. I would draw circles and arrows around things to show them how to use it. [computer].”

Moving team preparing an apartment on Scranton Street for one of the newly arrived Afghan families.

One of the new Afghan families is led by Dilawar Shamshad, father of seven children. They moved to New Haven last November. The Shamshad children started school in Clemente in January.

Shamshad’s family left Khost, Afghanistan, because they were threatened by the Taliban.

“Here we are comfortable and safe,” he said.

Since arriving, Shamshad has asked to take a course to learn English while her children learn in school.

“My kids can learn more here,” he said.

In Khost, Shamshad’s family could afford to send only their three oldest children to school.

“We weren’t sure about schools and hospitals here, but now we’ve found some really good ones,” he said. Shamshad, who previously worked as a soldier in Khost, is looking for a job in a company or as a driver.

Shamshad’s eighth-grade twins, Haider and Arafat, said they both enjoyed learning English at school. “The school is very good. I like it because we can study more here,” Haider said.

Arafat said that so far learning English has been easy.

“I like this school better,” he said of his former private boys’ school in Khost. The two also plan to become doctors.


The New Haven Independent is a nonprofit public interest daily news site founded in 2005.

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