It all seemed a bit surreal. In Kabul, he had paid drivers to transport his children from home to school and keep them off the streets, praying they would avoid the next bombing, he said. Now they would be taken away by a bright yellow school bus.
When the buses arrived, Tokhi silently got her children on board and said goodbye. A year of guiding his family around military bases, late nights filling out forms and browsing websites in a foreign language, had led to this moment: a new beginning for his children.
In houses and apartments across Maryland and Virginia, families this evacuees from Kabul a year ago celebrate this quiet milestone. As they waited for housing and sought to gain a foothold in a new country and culture, few were able to give their children a normal year. Now, like all the other children in the country, they went to school.
“In America, life is like that”, Tokhi said, cracking a brief smile as the buses roared out of sight.
Toki, 42 years old, was already thinking about tomorrow as he walked back to his apartment: a doctor’s appointment, another trip to Walmart for school supplies, a mental note to ask his kids for their school menus so he’d know when to prepare them halal lunches. There was so much more to do.
More than 6,000 refugees from Afghanistan have resettled in Maryland and Virginia since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, according to the US State Department. They fled in panic as the Taliban closed in and the desperate evacuation that captured the world’s attention last summer slowly turned into a year of waiting and uncertainty.
For Tokhi, who worked with coalition forces as a technician at Kabul’s now renamed Hamid Karzai International Airport, the trip to Maryland was an odyssey. He ran away for america with his his wife, Homaera, and five children in August 2021, not knowing how long it would take or how many places he would have to stop along the way.
Tokhi speaks slowly – but with growing confidence – in English as he recounts his family’s journey, aided by a patchwork of photos and videos on his phone.
Months of travel pass as Tokhi flicks from photo to photo. A 12-day stopover at a military base in Qatar; a few months at the US Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany; his family gazes out of a bus window as pine forests pass by; Tokhi, uncharacteristically sullen, standing between hangars on a German airstrip. Ramstein hadn’t had a good time. They slept in cots and stood in long lines for breakfasts of juice and bread as a base quickly received thousands of evacuated Afghans waiting to enter the United States
Finally, Tokhi’s family was sent to Holloman Air Force Base, where a tent city hosted refugee families on the ground of the base on the white sands of the New Mexico desert.
Gradually, the Tokhis regained their lives. They took English lessons in Holloman and provided Sobhannull, now 5, with donated stuffed animals. The soldiers held parties for the refugees where they danced to Afghan music and American hip-hop. Tokhi’s children liked to watch, but he was not good enough, Tokhi said, to join in the dance.
Yet they did not know where they would eventually settle. Tokhi, who had received a special immigrant visa, was able to submit his preferences and chose three states where he knew a friend or family member lived: Washington, Maryland, and Missouri. Finally, in January 2022 – almost six months after leaving Kabul – he received an answer.
If Tokhi’s return to Maryland sounded like a slow exploration, he wasn’t the only one. The influx of families into the DC metro area has overwhelmed local resettlement agencies, whose numbers had been cut by former President Donald Trump’s administration. Managing the influx of refugees felt “more like disaster response than resettlement,” said Kristyn Peck, CEO of National Capital Region Lutheran Social Services, one of many groups serving the region. “Sometimes people would leave the bases and come to us directly because they were tired of waiting.”
Families in the area have reported delays in contacting case managers and receiving housing assignments. The Tokhis, on the verge of becoming a family of eight, stayed in hotels for two months before they were finally able to settle into a two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in Landover Hills at the end of March. A friend brought scarlet Afghan rugs to line their living room, and it started to feel like home.
Schooling, of course, had been impossible in Qatar and Germany, where the Tokhis never knew how long they would stay. It was well into the second half of the school year in Prince George’s County when Tokhi moved to Landover Hills, and there were still several hurdles to overcome before she could get her children back into a classroom., including a long list of documentation and catch-up vaccinations that took another two weeks. It didn’t help that all the forms were online. Tokhi is an electrician, but that didn’t prepare him for the challenge of navigating QR codes and English web portals.
“Almost everything is online,” Tokhi said in Dari, through an interpreter. “I’m slow on technology, but we’ll get there.”
Public school officials in Prince George’s County said registering refugees was sometimes complicated by missing documents or school records. Some Afghan birth certificates did not mention the mother’s name, for example, so families had to send an additional letter to authorize mothers to pick up their school children. The district has been trying to enroll 50 students a day, said Pat Chiancone, international student specialist at PGCPS. The county and school district have taken in the majority of Afghan families who have arrived in Maryland over the past year due to the relative availability of affordable housing, she said.
“We always want to do better,” Chiancone said. “I almost don’t want to say anything because it’s so unusual [situation] … But I still hope that we could do things faster.
Thrown into new classes towards the end of the school year, Tokhi’s children had to deal with their own growing pains. A school assistant called Tokhi, worried after Bibi Hawa refused to eat at lunchtime in kindergarten. Abdul Rahman, now 13, bonded with friends in sixth grade football but struggled to understand classmates’ conversations.
“I would just convey my messages to them somehow,” Abdul Rahman said in Dari, through an interpreter. “Either sign language or a little English.”
A little English was all the Tokhi children had learned in the past year, he said. After the long registration process, they were in progress for a little over a month before the start of summer vacation.
“Of course it was difficult,” Tokhi said before the start of the school year. “I hope next year will be a much better experience for them.”
Public school teachers in Prince George’s County echoed that sentiment. They have spent much of the last year laying the groundwork for talented students struggling with English.
“I had kids who were really, really into science and social studies,” said Stephanie Abraham-Middleton, an ESL teacher at Templeton Elementary School in Riverdale. “Now that they’re able to read some of the academic language in these areas, I’m excited to see what they’ll be able to do.”
On Saturday, Tokhi and her family – Homaera and their children Abdul Rahman, Ayasha, Khadija, Bibi Hawa, Sobhannull and three-month-old Tayyaba, born in May – reunited over a simple breakfast of flatbread, cheese and honey, the way they ate at home in Kabul.
After the first week of school, it was a rare window when all eight could be together. Tokhi hopes to find work as an electrician soon, but in the meantime, he works long hours at a restaurant and ice cream shop in Georgetown. He proudly showed off a photo of a chocolate sundae in a plastic cup he had made.
For now, Tokhi finds time in the evenings to catch up on school with his children – “I can also learn some English with them”, he said – and watches them with enthusiasm. in their new environment.
He has applied for a green card and says he is awaiting a response from immigration officials.
“It’s a new life, you know,” Tokhi said as his children huddled on the couch behind him. “Going to another house that’s different, you’re trying bit by bit.”
They get there. Abdul Rahman has already scored his first football goal At break. Bibi Hawa, who is starting the first year, always has a smile in class. And now Tokhi can scroll through his camera roll, past airstrips and bus rides, to photos of newborn Tayyaba and a video of Sobhannull, laughing on a parking lot median as he jogs across the street. ‘grass.