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California schools work to get students out of Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover left many families stranded

Children who escaped Afghanistan with their family attend a news conference last week in El Cajon, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull

California schools work to get students out of Afghanistan

On Aug. 16, the Cajon Valley Union School District in Southern California got a call from a concerned parent.

“They said, ‘Things are strange, we don’t know what’s happening. Can you just hold our children’s seat?’” said Mike Serban, director of family and community engagement for the district.

The parent was calling from Afghanistan the day after the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country. U.S. forces scrambled to evacuate Americans, but the operation turned chaotic. Some U.S. aircraft took off with only a fraction of the passengers they could have carried out. The Taliban soon controlled many routes to the airport, potentially putting anyone at risk who tried to leave the country. President Joe Biden stood by his Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but officials warned Americans and allies were still trapped in Kabul.

Many Afghan-American families traveled to Afghanistan earlier this summer to visit relatives, but most Cajon Valley Union families planned to be back for the first day of school on Aug. 17, Serban said: “All of them had plane tickets to leave.” The Taliban took over Kabul before several families got out.

After that phone call, Cajon Valley Union staff began looking through attendance and checking on other Afghan immigrant families over social media when students didn’t show up for classes. “We just started gathering names and forming lists,” Serban said.

California school districts identified more than 50 students stranded in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. Cajon Valley, near San Diego, found more than 20. As of last week, 29 students from the San Juan Unified School District near Sacramento were still waiting in Afghanistan, and the Sacramento City Unified School District knew of three. Some officials worry there could be many more. Meanwhile, schools are beginning to address the emotional needs of the students who have made it back to the state.

When Cajon Valley school officials realized some of their students were among the stranded, they quickly notified two California politicians, including Republican U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa. “Darrell Issa returned our call within five minutes,” Serban said. According to Serban, 19 district students, along with parents and siblings, have since been able to return to California. As of Friday afternoon, one Cajon Valley family, including three students, was still waiting for safe passage out.

Jonathan Wilcox, Issa’s communications director, said in an email Friday that the office doesn’t know when other stranded families will return to California, but staff members are “working around the clock” and in daily communication with the families.

Cajon Valley is home to between 500 and 600 Afghan students, but Serban pointed out other areas of California or even other states may have many more: “If we only had 500, and eight families went back to Afghanistan, you think about how many families are likely back in Afghanistan that nobody knows about.”

Now many districts are turning to the challenge of caring for the students who have made it back. Serban said the El Cajon community has taken in refugees for decades, and the district has social-emotional counseling programs and teachers “aware of trauma-informed care.” Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors, said that each child is unique and needs a team of experienced people prepared to help them work through trauma. “We cannot necessarily solve issues,” she said. “But what we can do is understand them fully and to help support them and let them know that we are there for them and we’re not going to be leaving them.”

Children from returning families began attending classes in Cajon Valley within a couple of days of arriving. “One of our liaisons said, ‘It’s like there’s a thousand stories in their faces that they just can’t tell us yet,’” Serban said. “We need to be available not just for the next day or weeks or months, but years, because who knows when that story is going to need to be told?”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.


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