When Rezwan Kohistani arrived for his first day at Webb City High School in January, he was taken on a tour of the building, paired with a student who accompanied him to the main class and met one of his two teachers. of English.
No one spoke the 14-year-old’s Dari dialect, so he used Google Translate to communicate.
He also met manager Josh Flora, who said the newly arrived teenager from Afghanistan seemed happy.
Now Flora reflects on that first day and what led to Kohistani’s death on May 5 on school grounds. His body was discovered near a school baseball field in what authorities believe was a suicide. No foul play is suspected, but his death remains under investigation pending an autopsy report. Some members of the community said the teenager had been bullied.
“No parent imagines having to bury their child,” the teenager’s father, Lemar Kohistani, said in a statement released by the Afghan American Foundation. “Rezwan was a shining light in our life.”
The teenager’s death has left his family, the school district and the community yearning for answers. He also raised questions about the decision to place the Kohistanis in a rural town of around 13,000 with a tiny Muslim population. The freshman was the school’s first ever student from Afghanistan. Advocates said the refugees need culturally appropriate services for the unique challenges newly arrived residents face, from learning English to mental health care.
Superintendent Tony Rossetti said the situation was complicated as the school struggled with a lack of translators and counsel to support Kohistani, who fled violence in Afghanistan last fall.
“We do what we know,” Rossetti said. “There has been very little advice.”
The first day of school
Kohistani was brought into the main class alongside the upper class student he had been paired with and an English teacher. There he met classmates and 14 other students enrolled in the school’s English classes, most of whom were from Spanish-speaking countries.
Rossetti said the goal was to keep these students’ schedules close so they could talk to each other and develop a sense of community, a local nonprofit strategy told school officials it was important.
After class, Flora and a counselor met with Kohistani to talk about her schedule and arrange occasional meetings. The teenager was never taken to see mental health services, Flora said, although a teacher told him where to go if he needed help.
At the end of the day, administrators helped set up a hotspot on Kohistani’s phone after learning that her new home had no WiFi to access the internet.
Rossetti’s voice shook as he remembered the morning Kohistani’s body was found in high school.
“We tried to do the right thing with our students and our parents,” he said. “To be honest, we’re not 100 percent sure if Rezwan’s experience at our high school had any bearing on what happened. We hope the investigation will provide some answers for the family and for us.”
The 14-year-old’s death has devastated his family, said Lemar Kohistani, who has called on local and federal authorities to investigate the factors that contributed to his son’s death.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed this request.
Yasir Ali, chairman of the board of directors for the group’s Missouri chapter, said the organization has made a national commitment to push the community, police and school to come clean about what’s happening. ‘has passed.
He said the incident speaks to a larger crisis over how Afghan refugees were resettled in the United States.
“You bring them from a place and send them to a place where few other people of the same culture, ethnicity, religion belong,” he said.
“They need support. They need to be in areas where there are larger communities, in this case Afghan families and Muslim families where they can acclimate to the culture very easily.”
Rebekah Thomas, director of the Springfield office of the St. Louis International Institute, which helped settle the Kohistani family, says the Joplin area was an ideal location.
She said there was ample availability of accommodation, quality English language and job readiness programs, and a community sponsorship program through the local non-profit organization, RAISE. .
The organization was responsible for enrolling Kohistani at Webb City High School and, Thomas said, resettled and provided services to nearly 100 other refugees in the area.
RAISE did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He also did not respond to requests to see their tax returns, which the Internal Revenue Service requires be filed and made available for public inspection.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement said it was working with a nonprofit organization to provide behavioral health services directly to the Kohistani family and community members in the wake of the tragedy.
The family has publicly stated that they will move to Texas after their son’s death. A fundraiser to support the family’s relocation on Thursday raised more than $32,000.
Flora, the school principal, said Kohistani seemed to have friends and was even popular. The teenager often made videos with friends and hung out on TikTok, he said.
If there was any indication that Kohistani was struggling mentally or being bullied, he added, his English teacher would have pointed it out.
But despite allegations of bullying, Rossetti said no incidents were reported to school officials.
“I’m not naive to say we don’t have some of these things going. We’re not a utopia,” he said.
“But I believe that if he had had problems he would have reached out to friends and other people… Right from the start he was a very well-liked young man. And I think that’s why everyone world is so shocked.”
Rossetti said students can report through a school app.
Over the past five years, the school has enrolled an increasing number of refugee children.
He said the district is looking for ways to better support its refugee population.
“It’s one thing to get funding, but another thing is knowing what the real needs are that require funding. And we’re still working on that,” Rossetti said.
Translators are hard to find around Joplin, Rossetti said. And while a Dari interpreter from RAISE would have helped the school communicate with Kohistani’s family, talks to attract additional resources were not successful, he said.
“We try to figure out how to meet the specific needs of each of these different new learners that we have and try to get feedback to adapt,” he said.
“There are tough times here.”