Yellow highlighter circling the words "Middle School"In the summer of 2021, the United States withdrew all of our troops from Afghanistan, where we had been an occupying force for twenty years. While approximately half of Americans approved of this decision, half disapproved, with good reason: our abrupt exit destabilized Afghanistan, endangering the lives of countless children and families, and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. 

In the past six months alone, the US – among other countries – has welcomed tens of thousands of Afghan newcomers to our shores. Like every immigrant group, Afghans enrich our country. They have also faced intense trauma. Here are some ways that you and your children can welcome these newcomers to our schools, neighborhoods, and communities. 

Start with an assets perspective

More often than not, curricula throughout the US still promote the idea that immigrants are lucky to come to this country. In reality, the US is lucky to welcome immigrants who contribute to our tax base, enliven our culture, and provide us with incredible expertise. When speaking to children about immigrants, make sure your language reflects this positive attitude. Instead of calling newcomers English language learners, for example, call them multilingual. Instead of focusing on what we can teach newcomers, focus on what they can teach us. Treat newcomers as equals, and your child will follow your lead. 

Get curious about context

Be open to children and students’ questions about newcomers, even if you don’t know all of the answers. Work together to research the history of Afghanistan, including the history of the American invasion. Eat at an Afghan restaurant, seek out the work of Afghan artists, and listen to Afghan music. While researching, remember that newcomers are the experts on their culture. If something you learned contradicts the lived experience of someone from Afghanistan, the person from Afghanistan is correct. 

Get critical about context 

Why did so many Afghans flee their homes? Why did the US invade in the first place? Why did they withdraw troops so quickly? Together, read or watch documentaries about the history of the US and Afghanistan. If possible, extend the learning to other countries – like Vietnam – that have been affected by American invasions, as well as countries – like Mexico – that have been affected by American economic policies. Help young people understand that leaving home is a huge decision, and immigrants are often forced to come to the US because of our foreign policies. 

Check in on newcomers through young people

"Welcome" in PashtoAsk your child or students about how newcomers at school are doing. Have they made friends? What are their favorite subjects in school? How are they feeling? Encourage them to check in with newcomers so that they can answer your questions. Although it is never necessary to force friendships, it is vital to clearly communicate your expectations that young people will treat newcomers with warmth, generosity, and respect.  

Ask explicitly about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia

Ask students and children about how their peers treat newcomers. Talk  about why others may make fun of newcomers, bully them, or talk about them behind their back. Strategize together about ways they could intervene. Sometimes saying something as simple as, “I don’t think that’s funny,” or, “You shouldn’t treat people that way,” is enough to deescalate a potentially racist situation. 

Engage in activism and volunteering 

Write letters to immigrants in detention. Organize a care package for newcomers moving into new homes. Volunteer with resettlement agencies. Attend rallies for pro-immigrant causes. Getting to know the issues that newcomers face, and getting to know newcomers themselves, goes a long way to combatting xenophobia and promoting compassion.       

Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.