Summer classes ended about two weeks ago for many of Muhammad Tayyeb’s eight children, but they are already asking him when they can go back to class. They want to see their friends and teachers and they’re eager to keep practicing English.
The Tayyeb children are some of more than 200 Afghan students who have enrolled in Minneapolis Public Schools within the past year. Many of their families fled Afghanistan in the days and weeks after Taliban forces seized control of the capital city of Kabul in August 2021.
Tayyeb, the district’s cultural facilitator and Afghan support head, works as a translator and liaison to these 50 or so families, and he helped spread the word about the Newcomer Summer High School program—a new offering for Minneapolis high-schoolers new to the United States. Afghan students made up the majority of the 70 or so high schoolers in the program held at South High School.
“It’s a phenomenal program,” said Tayyeb, who sent his three oldest children. They’d learned some basic English in school in Afghanistan, but not enough to be fluent. “It’s a big challenge for them, but they surprise me with how fast they are learning,” he said.
Betsy Winzig, one of the program’s teachers, was also impressed by how much more confident the students became in their English skills. By the final days of the monthlong program, they were chatting with each other in English and even using the idioms and colloquialisms they picked up from their teachers. (Winzig realized she must utter “oh boy” pretty often based on how quickly her students started saying it.)
“They have so much joy and energy to learn,” Winzig said. “That’s what all teachers want from their students.”
The program included weekly field trips, including a visit to Fort Snelling and another to the Rum River. Students went canoeing, pitched a tent, and learned how to start a fire with the help of a Boy Scout troop.
Maryam Sharokhi, a 10th-grader at Edison High School, said she hopes she can apply her skills on a family camping trip someday soon.
“I had a lot of fun, and my English is better now,” Sharokhi said, using her new language skills.
Sharokhi also learned how to navigate public transit through the program and met new friends from all over the world, as well as other Afghan students.
Winzig said one of her favorite moments was watching about 50 students sitting on a bridge in Theodore Wirth Regional Park, their legs dangling in the water. They held their phones just long enough to snap some photos—they weren’t glued to their screens. Instead, they were talking in English and asking rapid-fire questions about the lily pads and the algae at the water’s edge.
“It was just lovely,” Winzig said. “It was so clear they really want to be a part of Minnesota.”
In addition to lessons about the state’s history, landscape and culture, Winzig prioritized making time to ask students about their home country.
“It was important to honor what they left behind,” she said. “In the excitement of living somewhere new, there is sadness and there is loss.”
The Tayyeb family has a large Afghan flag hanging in their dining room. A photo of the flag, with a few hand-drawn hearts on it, is pinned above their couch.
Back in Afghanistan, the family lived in a home of more than 20 rooms. They now live in a four-bedroom duplex in northeast Minneapolis. They had just two days’ notice before leaving Afghanistan.
“It was like a dream,” Tayyeb said. “I was not expecting the change so quickly. … We left our home, our car, all our things.”
But as he watches his children dig through their backpacks and pull out folders full of worksheets, all completed in neat English handwriting, he thinks about the opportunities ahead for his family and those he works with.
“Our life is different, but we are safe here,” he said. “My kids can go to school and learn English so they will have a good future.”