For young Afghan refugees in Southern California, education means studying in hotels


Eleven-year-old Zainab, an Afghan refugee who is learning English, nails the question the moment she hears it.

“How many notebooks in the classroom?” her teacher asks.

“There is one notebook in the classroom,” she says, her voice halting because of the new language but confident because she knows the answer.

“Perfect!” her teacher says.

Then the process repeats, with different numbers of notebooks. And pencils. And calendars.  All the questions are geared to teach English to a group of children, of different ages, who fled Afghanistan last fall and are looking to normalize their lives.

Scenes like this are playing out in Orange County classrooms that are anything but typical. Zainab and two siblings are among some 60 children from Afghanistan temporarily living in local hotels and getting their schooling through a first-of-its-kind program engineered by educators at the Orange County Department of Education.

Rather than bring the refugee students to school, the school is coming to them.

  • Afghan refugee Mohammad is all smiles during a class in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Young Afghan refugees learn English in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Teacher Ryan Hinkle, left, and translator Shafiullah Sahibzai, right, help young Afghan refugees learn English in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Rod West, a program data technician, goes over setting up a Chromebook with Afghan refugee Mohammad  in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Tactile ASL interpreter Loren Lagoo helps a young Afghan refugee learn English in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Young Afghan refugees learn about greeting people in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Teacher Ryan Hinkle, center, teaches young Afghan refugees in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Teacher Ryan Hinkle, left, and translator Shafiullah Sahibzai help young Afghan refugees learn English in Irvine, CA, on Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A refuge family from Afghanistan—Nasema and Firooz with their children Shikib, 17, Shahab, 8, and Shoaib, 22— share a funny moment together at their Irvine hotel on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. They arrived in the U.S. with little else than the clothes on their backs. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Three-year-old Eisha, a refugee from Afghanistan, appears carefree as she plays at a hotel in Irvine on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. Her family and other refugee families have been living in temporary housing since they arrived in the U.S. a couple months ago. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Samira, 7, scoots around the basketball court at her Irvine hotel on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. Afghan refugee families have been placed in local hotels since they left their country a few months ago. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Satayesh, 14, takes a basketball shot while playing with Asal , 11, at their Irvine hotel on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. They are part of a group of Afghan refugee families staying in local hotels. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Sonik Sadozai, center, with Afghan Refugee Relief, chats with a family being housed at an Irvine hotel on Tuesday, February 1, 2022. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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The creative solution was needed after so many refugee families arrived in Orange County in such a short period of time. Since August, when U.S. troops evacuated Afghanistan and the country fell to the Taliban, Orange County reports it has helped get support for 492 arriving Afghan refugees, including 196 children. While some of those families have settled into housing and have been able to enroll their kids in local schools, dozens of families have been in limbo, living in hotels for weeks or even months.

Aid groups help the new arrivals search for permanent housing, but schooling for the kids can’t be delayed.

RELATED: Orange County starts to welcome Afghan refugees; more expected

Originally, educators talked about providing school buses or coordinating private transportation so the refugee kids could travel from the hotels to local schools. But since housing in Orange County is so expensive, most of the families are planning to settle long term in the Inland Empire, Sacramento or out of state, in many cases joining with other relatives already in the U.S., according to Christine Olmstead, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Orange County Department of Education.

Starting school on one campus and then quickly moving to another “would create more instability for the students,” said OCDE spokesman Ian Hanigan. So county educators decided to try something new. They would teach kids through OCDE’s “ACCESS” program, which offers students alternative school options, including the Community Home Education Program and Pacific Coast High School for independent study.

Through these programs, teachers and translators have been traveling in recent weeks to three Orange County hotels to meet up with the students. This includes once-a-week visits from instructors who specialize in physical education and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) classes.

In a make-shift school room at an Irvine hotel the children are divided by a screen barrier, with kids younger than 6 on one side and older kids on the other. But they stay pretty close together during the noisy, enthusiastic sessions, and the sounds of the young voices – speaking several languages and dialects – constantly co-mingle. This isn’t the kind of classroom where kids sit quietly at their desks.

On the under-6 side, three young boys danced and sang as they learned how to say “My name is” with the help of an English-speaking teacher and a translator. On the older side, two other teachers and a translator or two worked with five other children; one focused on kids just starting to learn English and the other helped students whose English is more advanced.

Off to the side, a deaf interpreter worked one-on-one with Shikib, a 17-year-old who has been deaf since birth. (The family’s last name, like others in this story, is being withheld to protect relatives still in danger in Afghanistan.)

Last fall, shortly after his family arrived in the United States, Shikib saved a video on the family’s shared cell phone that showed sign language in action. His father explained, through a translator, that Shikib had never learned to sign, but hoped to someday find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Now, in this makeshift classroom inside an Irvine hotel, Shikib is taking that step, learning sign language.

“Our goal here is that while they’re waiting for their permanent housing, we can provide them with as much support and English skills until they can enroll in their own district when they move,” Olmstead said.

RELATED: Afghan refugees find generosity, chaos as they settle in Orange County

County Superintendent Al Mijares said the newly created program highlights how people can help each other in times of hardship.

“It’s one human being helping another,” Mijares said. “It boils down to civility, treating people with dignity.”

Afghan refugee children have arrived with a wide range of backgrounds and education levels that schools need to address, according to interviews with families and organizations supporting them.

Some come from families where one or both parents are highly educated, with advanced degrees in fields such as engineering or languages. That helped some Afghan refugees get work with U.S. forces, but it has since put their families at risk in a country now under Taliban control. Many of their kids already were starting their own education in Afghanistan, meaning their biggest needs, for now, are English lessons and cultural support.

But other young Afghans are landing here with little or no experience in schools. Shikib, for example, dropped out of school in his hometown of Heret after taking some fourth-grade classes, and his 8-year-old brother Shahab only attended through first grade. So, along with language lessons, they need additional support to get caught up on their education.

Jina Poirier, a program specialist at the county’s ACCESS program, assesses each student and helps map out an appropriate education plan. School in Afghanistan doesn’t start until age 7, she said. And while many of the older students were introduced to English in their homeland, and can read English at a second-grade level, Poirier said their comprehension skills still need work.

There are many challenges, but lack of ambition is not one of them.

“Motivation to learn is off the charts,” she said.

Ryan Hinkle, a teacher in ACCESS program who is trained to teach children who don’t speak English, echoed that notion.

“They’re not only extremely smart but they want as much homework as possible,” Hinkle said. “They just want to learn.”

“They are some of the best students I’ve ever had. I feel honored to be here.”

For translator Shafiullah Sahibzai, 27, the teaching mission is personal. As a refugee himself, who arrived last October, Sahibzai said he relates to what the students are experiencing.

“I feel for them because I’m in the same situation,” said Sahibzai, who speaks Pashto, Dari, Farsi and Urdu. Back home, he worked in a bank and also taught computer science and other classes at a university. His wife, Umaima Sahibzai, is a U.S. citizen and also works as a translator in the program.

He praised the new program.

“They’re trying their best to treat our children in the best way and to help us to start our new lives and help children adopt to this culture. It’s really supportive. And really appreciated.”

Mohammad, an 18-year-old who last August left the Logar province of Afghanistan with his mother, little brother, and sister Zainab, is eager to learn computer science.

“At home, I went to school at 7 a.m. but then I worked in a pharmacy in the afternoon,” said Mohammad, sporting a U.S. Army sweatshirt.

Their life in Afghanistan was comfortable until the Taliban took over, the family said. They tried to leave Afghanistan together, but Mohammad’s father, a general in the Afghan Army, was stopped at the airport. So were two of his children. The family is now split between two countries. The former general is in hiding in Afghanistan – while his wife and three of their children are living in a hotel in Irvine.

“I’m hoping that one day we will be together,” Mohammad’s mother, Rana, said through a translator. In the meantime, she speaks with her husband and two teens back in their homeland every day.

In the near future, they hope to settle somewhere more permanently, possibly in Anaheim, where they have family. In the meantime, Mohammad said he’s looking forward to being a student again.

So is his mother. She wants to go to nursing school.