Ahmad Jawed Tokhi watched quietly last Monday morning as the Landover Hills street around him thrummed with excitement on the first day of school.
It all felt a little surreal. In Kabul, he’d paid drivers to ferry his children from home to school and keep them off the streets, praying they’d avoid the next bomb attack, he said. Now, they’d be whisked away by a bright yellow school bus.
When the buses came, Tokhi wordlessly ushered his children aboard and waved them goodbye. A year of shepherding his family through military bases, of late nights spent filling in forms and sifting through websites in a foreign language, had led to this moment: a fresh start for his kids.
In houses and apartments across Maryland and Virginia, families that evacuated from Kabul a year ago are celebrating this quiet milestone. As they waited for housing and searched for footing in a new country and culture, few could give their children a normal year. Now, like any other kids in the country, they were off to school.
“In America, life is like this,” Tokhi said, cracking a brief smile as the buses roared out of sight.
Tokhi, 42, 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 pack them halal lunches. There was so much more to do.
More than 6,000 refugees from Afghanistan have resettled in Maryland and Virginia since Kabul fell in August 2021, according to the U.S. State Department. They fled in a panic as the Taliban closed in, and the desperate evacuation that captured the world’s attention last summer slowly unspooled into a year of waiting and uncertainty.
For Tokhi, who worked with coalition forces as a technician at the since-renamed Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the journey to Maryland was an odyssey. He fled for America with his wife, Homaera, and five children in August 2021, not knowing how long it would take or how many places he’d 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 scroll by as Tokhi flicks between photos. A 12-day stop at a military base in Qatar; a few months at the U.S. Air Force’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany; his family looking out of a bus window as forests of pine trees stream past; Tokhi, uncharacteristically sullen, standing between hangars on a German airstrip. Ramstein hadn’t been a good time. They slept in cots and waited in long lines for breakfasts of juice and bread as the base quickly took in thousands of evacuated Afghans waiting to enter the U.S.
Finally, Tokhi’s family was sent to Holloman Air Force Base, where a tent city welcomed refugee families to the base’s grounds on the white sands of the New Mexico desert.
Inch by inch, the Tokhis reclaimed their lives. They took English classes at 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 enjoyed watching, but he wasn’t good enough, Tokhi said, to join in the dancing.
Still, they didn’t know where they’d finally settle. Tokhi, who’d received a Special Immigrant Visa, was able to submit preferences and picked three states where he knew a friend or family member lived: Washington, Maryland and Missouri. Finally, in January 2022 — nearly half a year after he’d left Kabul — he received an answer.
If Tokhi’s referral to Maryland felt like a slow crawl, he wasn’t alone. The influx of families to the D.C. metro area swamped local resettlement agencies, whose numbers had been slashed by the administration of former president Donald Trump. Handling the surge in refugees felt “more like a disaster response than resettlement,” said Kristyn Peck, CEO of the Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, one of several groups serving the region. “Sometimes people would leave the bases and just come to us directly because they were tired of waiting.”
Families in the region reported delays connecting with case managers and receiving housing assignments. The Tokhis, about to become 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 in late March. A friend brought scarlet Afghan rugs to carpet their living room, and it started to feel like home.
Schooling, obviously, had been impossible in Qatar and Germany, where the Tokhis never knew how long they’d stay. It was well into the second half of the school year in Prince George’s County when Tokhi got settled in Landover Hills, and there were still several hurdles to clear before he could get his children back into a classroom, including a laundry list of documentation and makeup vaccinations that took another two weeks to complete. 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 web portals in English.
“Almost everything is online,” Tokhi said in Dari, through an interpreter. “I’m slow on technology, but we’ll get there.”
Prince George’s County Public Schools officials said that enrolling refugees was, at times, complicated by missing documents or school records. Some Afghan birth certificates don’t include the mother’s name, for example, so families had to send an additional letter to authorize mothers to pick up their schoolchildren. The district tried to enroll 50 students per day, said Pat Chiancone, an international student specialist at PGCPS. The county and school district received the majority of the Afghan families that arrived in Maryland over the past year because of 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 such an unusual [situation] … But I always hope that we could do things more quickly.”
Thrown into new classes near the end of the school year, Tokhi’s children faced their own growing pains. A school assistant called Tokhi, concerned after Bibi Hawa refused to eat at lunchtime in kindergarten. Abdul Rahman, now 13, bonded with friends in sixth grade over soccer but struggled to understand his classmates’ conversations.
“I would just pass my messages to them somehow,” Abdul Rahman said in Dari, through an interpreter. “Either by sign language, or a bit of English.”
A bit of English was all Tokhi’s kids picked up last school year, he said. After the long enrollment process, they were in classes for just over a month before summer holidays began.
“Of course it was difficult,” Tokhi said before the start of the school year. “I wish next year will be a much better experience for them.”
Teachers from Prince George’s County Public Schools echoed that sentiment. They spent much of last year making up ground for talented students grappling with English.
“I had some kids who had some really strong interests in 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 those areas, I’m excited to see what they’re going to be able to do.”
On Saturday, Tokhi and his family — Homaera and their children Abdul Rahman, Ayasha, Khadija, Bibi Hawa, Sobhannull and three-month old Tayyaba, who was born in May — caught up over a simple breakfast of flatbread, cheese and honey, the same as they’d eat back home in Kabul.
After the first week of school, it was a rare window where the eight of them could be together. Tokhi hopes to find work as an electrician soon, but in the meantime is working 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’d made.
For now, Tokhi finds time in the evenings to catch up about school with his children — “I can learn a bit of English from them as well,” he said — and watches excitedly as they grow into their new surroundings.
He has applied for a green card and says he’s waiting to hear back from immigration officials.
“It’s a new life, you know,” Tokhi said as his kids bunched together on the sofa behind him. “Going to another home that’s different, you try little by little.”
They’re getting there. Abdul Rahman has already scored his first goal in soccer at recess. Bibi Hawa, starting first grade, is always smiling in class. And now, Tokhi can scroll forward on his camera roll, past the airstrips and bus rides, to photos of newborn Tayyaba and a video of Sobhannull, laughing on a parking lot median as he scampers across the grass.