BY INDIANA NASH
NISKAYUNA- Mariam Alizada and her family left the near-daily bombings and the promise of lifelong unemployment in Kabul to move to Niskayuna in 2015.
While she is safer here, the adjustment period has been a long one.
“When I first got here, my English was not good. My teachers would be talking in the front of the class and I just wouldn’t understand them,” Alizada said.
Kelly Lehman, Niskayuna high school’s English as a New Language teacher, was familiar with this kind of academic hardship.
“High school English language learners (ELLs) in general have a more difficult time than their younger elementary school counterparts because they have less time to learn a language and pass the rigorous tests to achieve a high school diploma. In terms of the academic side or your questions, it really comes down to time. Remarkably, however, many of my students rise to the occasion in a year or less and do very well in their high school classes,” Lehman said.
Alizada stayed after and came in early most school days to work not only on catching up with the material, but the language itself. She is a Junior now, but she is taking some Sophomore level classes that she was unable to take last year.
“I think I really do go to the best school here because these teachers would stay after with me every day. In Afghanistan, that does not happen. Once school is done, that’s it. You go home for the day and you must come back with your homework done the next day or you get zero points,” Alizada said.
Right now, her family is living with their grandparents.
“My mom and dad don’t speak English so it is very hard for them,” Alizada said of parents Mahri and Yosuf.
In Afghanistan, her mother was a housewife and her father was disabled. They have not been able to find jobs because of the language barrier and health issues.
According to Lehman, families who do not speak English have a more difficult time finding employment and this can place financial stress on families.
Alizada, who speaks English with her family when she is home to make them more attuned to it said that there are other barriers that make learning the language a challenge.
“They also don’t go very many places because they don’t have a car. . . in Afghanistan, you don’t need one. There are buses and other cars everywhere. But here, that’s the only way you can really go,” Alizada said.
She feels this contrast most sharply on her walks into work.
“I work at McDonalds. I usually walk there, but sometimes I take the bus,” Alizada said.
When she started in December of 2015, she would get lost and had trouble keeping up with the orders because of the language barrier.
For most students, their part-time jobs are a way to earn a bit of extra cash. For Alizada, it’s her entire family’s’ income. “My sister (Subri) used to work at WalMart, but now she is injured and can’t,” Alizada said.
Alizada works anywhere from four to five nights a week.
Beyond bringing in money, she has her job to credit with her progress with English.
“My job helped me more than school in that,” Alizada said.
Now, she has no trouble keeping up with the pace of the orders and said that she’s formed friendships with her managers and co-workers.
“I actually have more friends from work than from school,” Alizada said, “Also, at work there is a camaraderie that develops. People are kind and thoughtful there.”
At school, it can be difficult to make friendships because she finds that her concerns are so different from those of her classmates.
Even though she is more confident in the English language, humor is hard to translate.
“So there are some things I say that I think have offended people so I don’t joke anymore,” Alizada said.
While American humor has been difficult to translate, Alizada has recently had a surprising moment of success.
“I got a letter in the mail after I’d been sick for a full week inviting me into Niskayuna Honors Society Club,” Alizada said.
For some students being in the club can feel like just another accomplishment to put on their resumes, but for Alizada, it actually is an honor.
“What I like about American culture is that I can share my beliefs and thoughts without any fear and everyone is eager to listen to it. Other small differences that we notice are that people dance a lot here anywhere (never in Afghanistan, even in a concert) . . . People are free to make their own choices for good and bad,” Alizada said.
This sense of freedom is the best part of getting adjusted to life in the United States, although the chance at having a career is a close second.
“I really want to be a doctor . . . I know it will be hard. They help everyone and I think the world needs them,” Alizada said.
Although adjusting has been difficult, she hopes now that she is living in the United States she will have the chance to become one.
“ . . . what makes them unique is that they are very good [at] overcoming what would normally break most people (surviving a war, moving to a completely foreign place, having to learn five different languages including English),” Lehman said of the Alizada family.