Dreams of Home

Leslie Lee Nonfiction Award – Nonfiction

Taqwa Totakhail

Traverse City West High School – 11th grade

Saturday, August 14, 2021, was a big day. The day that changed my life, the day we moved to the U.S.A, just one day before the Taliban came to Afghanistan, destroying everything. How was it possible that the very next day, August 15, we arrived in a different world, the United States of America? And then just two days later, in Traverse City, Michigan. While we watched scenes of horror play out back home, I at least was safe. Embraced by a wonderful new family, Ann and Don Gregory, who gave us a place to stay – a refuge from which to relearn our lives. I was 15 years old.
After one month, my dad started the process to get us to school. At first, I thought that they would put me in 7th or 8th grade because I couldn’t speak English at all. Then my dad said, “You’re going to high school and the 10th grade.” At first, I was nervous, excited, and kind of scared. I was outside of my safety zone. But I was thinking, “I can make it.”
On the first day of school, I was so surprised. The students did not have uniforms. They were allowed phones in school. Boys and girls are in the same school and took classes together. In the classes, the students use computers more than books, including for doing their homework.. During exams, the teachers allowed the students to use textbooks and notes. On math exams, they could use calculators. All of this was very different from what I had known in Afghanistan.

I also found deeper cultural differences. In Afghanistan, teachers and principals are very serious and command respect from the students. This included hitting our hands with a stick or ruler when deemed “necessary”. (Which happened frequently, in my experience!) Here, in contrast, the teachers and principals are more like friends with students, focused on finding ways to make things easier. So if a student needs any school materials, they can get it in class from the teacher or from the office. The students never have a hard time if they need pens, pencils, notebooks, or any other things – like help with homework or assignments. The most important thing here is that students be given every opportunity to learn – starting with the idea that they have to be safe. They have to be comfortable that their lives are safe. They must never think, “Am I going home alive or not?”
Afghanistan is the opposite of all of this. We have to wear uniforms. We are not allowed to have phones, or computers, or anything electronic in school. If the students do have these things, the teacher will take it or break it. We use books in classes all the time and we have to write a lot, sometimes six pages in one hour. For exams, we are allowed just one pen and one piece of paper. Our exams are very hard. We can’t use any notes or textbooks. I remember having to memorize the answers to 200 questions in one night.
The teachers in Afghanistan are so serious that the students are afraid to talk with them. The principals are even more strict and often even the teachers can’t talk with them! I remember

that if the principals were in the hallway, no one could move from their chairs. The effect of this was to make learning very hard, but it also ensured that we did learn.
But perhaps the most striking difference between my experience in school here and in Afghanistan is about safety. Here, people are increasingly concerned about safety in the wake of gun violence. But thankfully this is not something that has affected most students. By contrast, students in Afghanistan deal with the threat of violence almost every day. I personally experienced an attack at a neighboring girls school that killed more than 1,000 students. I could hear the explosion and see the smoke from my school. It was terrifying. I can assure you that it’s very hard to focus on learning when you’re afraid.
Today under Taliban rule schools in Afghanistan have been shutdown and learning for girls has all but stopped. This means that more than half of the country is not in school (60% of Afghanistan’s population is female). This includes in my own family all of my cousins who have been left in Afghanistan. More than 20 girls, some older and others younger than me. All stuck at home today, not able to go to school. They are harder workers than me but they have no future without an education. This is what the Taliban seems to want. Twenty years ago, the first time they were in power, the Taliban also closed schools. It was only after they were overthrown that a new generation, including my family, had the opportunity to study freely and to become successful. Today, the Taliban is trying once again to turn back the clock.

For me, the most important part of America is education. Education freedom. Education quality. And education opportunity for all. I feel that I have found an education home here that will allow me to make my own future. In contrast, education in Afghanistan is so hard and challenging – no access to schools for girls and the constant threat of violence. I am the lucky one. I am the safe one. I am home.