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‘Finally, we are free.’ An emotional homecoming for California students stuck in Afghanistan

Civilians board an evacuation fight at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 25. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Davis Harris)

When Rahmatullah, Huma and their children arrived at Ethel I. Baker Elementary on Monday morning, the school’s announcement board had a message: “Welcome Back Pakiza, Raihan and Faizan!”

The three Sacramento City Unified children and their parents have returned home to Sacramento after months of uncertainty and scrambling across Afghanistan while coordinating with a principal half a world away. That journey culminated with a return to classes Monday.

“This is humanity,” Rahmatullah said. The children eagerly posed for a photograph in front of the sign. It was their first time on campus since February.

In the middle of the night late last week, Ethel I. Baker Elementary School Principal Nate McGill and Jason Yuen, a second grade teacher, were at Sacramento International Airport to meet the family. For more than two months, they’d communicated with them some 7,000 miles away as they tried to escape Afghanistan and return to their Sacramento home.

“Finally, we are free from all of the insecurity and threats,” Huma said at the airport. “We are really happy that my kids came back home safely.”

Faizan, 8, Pakiza, 9, and Raihan, 6, embraced McGill, before they piled into his Nissan Pathfinder and headed for the family’s apartment. Before they left the airport, Yuen gave the kids stuffed animals and glow toys — gifts to welcome them home after missing nearly 50 days of school.

The Sacramento Bee is not publishing the family’s last name to protect their identities and safety.

The welcome home was long anticipated. Beginning in mid-August, when Taliban fighters took control of Afghanistan, McGill stayed in communication day and night with the childrens’ parents.

He told their story to reporters, advocated for their safe return with the U.S. government and ultimately helped secure their escape from Afghanistan and flight back to Sacramento.

The most overwhelming moment, he said, was learning that they were finally able to leave Afghanistan and were headed to a temporary living space in Abu Dhabi. McGill rushed to bring more than a dozen bags of groceries, new backpacks, clothes and school supplies to the family’s home. The children had outgrown some of the clothes they left behind.

Back to school in Sacramento

Rahmatullah and Huma brought their three children to campus early on Monday.

Pakiza, wearing a pink sweater with hearts and unicorn printed pants, rushed to her classroom to greet her new fourth grade teacher.

Kelly Melvin embraced her with a long, emotional hug.

“I didn’t imagine I would be crying this much this morning,” Melvin said.

Melvin gifted her a large teddy bear and a stack of personalized yellow greeting cards from her classmates, all of whom were eager to meet the classmate they waited to meet for months.

“Pakiza, I am so happy you are out now!” read one letter from a fourth grader. “I hope we will become friends! I wish for you and your family to have a great life!”

Readjusting to life in the United States will take time, their parents said.

“This is really a second (chance at) life,” Rahmatullah said as his three children ate breakfast in the school cafeteria.

Prioritizing education

For months, Rahmatullah and Huma communicated with McGill and a Sacramento Bee reporter, chronicling their hopes, desperation and futile efforts to return home to the U.S. Through it all, returning their children to school was their top priority.

“It’s every parent’s dream for their children to be educated,” Huma said. “We want everyone to be safe and educated, so they can take care of their families.”

Those opportunities, they said, are limited for the loved ones they left behind.

Huma’s emotions were palpable as she shared what she identifies as guilt. Survivor’s guilt.

“There are so many people still suffering there,” she said. “We couldn’t take our families.”

Just scanning the faces of the passengers on the flight to Abu Dhabi, Huma said she wondered why someone like her mother could not join her.

“Everyday I call her, and I just ask if she is still okay,” Huma said.

Cristina Kosakowski, the school’s mental health and wellness clinician, briefly met with Rahmatullah and Huma on the school playground Monday morning. Once school children shuffled into their classrooms, the couple shared with her intimate details of their vivid and repeated nightmares: gun violence, threats and death.

In partnership with the Muslim American Society’s Social Services Foundation, Rahmatullah, Huma and their three children will receive therapy. Baker Elementary, which is home to a largely underserved student population in Sacramento, was one of the first 11 schools in the county to receive a full time counselor. The school now has three full-time health professionals.

Kosakowski’s job is to ensure students are emotionally supported. Through California’s public health insurance program, Medi-Cal, low-income families can receive services to meet their mental health needs.

“That’s changed how we can serve our kids here,” McGill said. “And that’s made a huge difference.”

Looking forward

Rahmatullah remembers his initial pleas for help. He credits McGill for securing their safe return as well as helping them prepare for what comes next. Just two days after their return, Rahmatullah and Huma are already looking forward to working.

And McGill is ready to help.

Rahmatullah, who has a master’s degree in business administration, worked as a cashier at a Sacramento gas station prior to visiting Afghanistan. But both Rahmatullah and Huma have experience working with the United Nations and as refugee rights caseworkers.

McGill is working with District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and Sacramento County Office of Education to determine how Rahmatullah and Huma can be of service to the school district. They each speak six languages, and hope to work as interpreters for the thousands of newly immigrated families and students in the Sacramento region.

“His (McGill) work is unforgettable,” Rahmatullah said. “From the first day, he raised his voice for us. We are short of words on how to thank him.”

Huma likened McGill to Superman.

On Monday morning, as the opening bells rang and students rushed to their classrooms, McGill had one final gesture to make. He took Raihan’s hand and led him to the first classroom where he introduced the boy to his new teacher, Rosa Marquez.

They fist bumped as she welcomed him back. Behind his blue surgical mask, Raihan smiled.


(c) 2021 The Sacramento Bee

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