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From refugee to graduate

Until three weeks ago, Alaha H. had no idea she would graduate from York International School on May 20. In fact, there have been many uncertainties in her life since she fled her home in Afghanistan two years ago. But now, with a high school diploma she wasn’t expecting, she has plans for her future. 

Afghanistan refugee graduate

Alaha (pronounced like the Hawaiian word aloha), came to the United States in 2021 after the Taliban entered Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, where she lived. Her father, who worked for the United States military, called her family from the airport and told them they had to leave immediately. The family of eight took one of the last flights out of the country with almost nothing but their passports and the clothes on their backs. They made stops in Qatar, Italy, and Virginia before arriving in Colorado with assistance from a nonprofit that helps refugees rebuild their lives. 

“I was sad to leave because it was my country, but it was no longer safe and I couldn’t live there anymore,” Alaha said, interpreted by her younger brother, Mohammad. “So, I was happy to come here because my family was safe and there was no more dying.” 

She enrolled at York in March 2022, but the school’s staff wasn’t entirely sure what grade she should be in. She didn’t have a transcript and the Taliban closed her all-girls school in Afghanistan, so there was no proof of what classes she had completed. After some estimation, she began taking classes at the eleventh-grade level. Alaha said she enjoyed her experience.  

“I like this school because all the students pushed me to study English and do well in other classes and they made me feel better,” she said. “All the teachers push you to do your best, do your homework and I like it here.” 

Her English Language Learners teacher, Dianne Bennett, was impressed by Alaha’s work ethic and focus and how forthright she was. For instance, at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, Alaha and Mohammad wanted to take all the same classes together, but they needed to be separated as he was enrolled as a sophomore. Alaha emphatically argued with her parents and teachers that she wanted to stay with her brother.  

"She is a very strong young woman,” said Bennett. “She stands up for herself and is able to articulate her needs and desires and has shown that all year.” 

Bennett believes part of the reason Alaha wanted to keep her brother close was he understood English a little better and could interpret for her. Still, school staff did separate the two, which forced Alaha’s language skills grow, so much so that she just presented a PowerPoint presentation in one class entirely in English.  

Because Alaha will turn 21 in June, she would have aged out of the Mapleton system and not been able to start her senior year, much less graduate with a diploma. Instead, she would have had to attend another school for a year before earning a GED. That was the plan until a simple request in late April.  Afghanistan high school transcript

Alaha’s older sister graduated a few years earlier from the same Afghanistan school and still had her transcript. She asked Alaha to have someone at York print a copy. Dianne Bennett was that someone and when she saw it, she realized it could potentially help Alaha.  

“I was like, ‘Do you know this goldmine you just gave me?!’” Bennett said. “This tells me what you did. What can we do with this?!”  

As Bennett and York’s office staff examined the transcript, Alaha confirmed that the classes offered at each grade level were the exact same for every student. That provided reasonable evidence that Alaha likely took specific classes up to a certain point before leaving her country and, when combined with her York classes, made her eligible to graduate this year. Bennett discussed the situation with other staff to check all the necessary boxes and now Alaha will be the first child in her family to graduate from an American high school.  

“I am happy to finish school so I can go to college and learn more,” she said. 

Next, she will attend Denver’s Emily Griffith Technical College for a year, taking English classes before, ideally, enrolling at the Community College of Denver. She has two very different career paths in mind. She said she is interested in becoming a dentist someday, but she has also expressed an interest in fashion, specifically designing clothing for Muslim women that is more stylish than their traditional garb. In fact, her recent PowerPoint presentation was on developing a business for that purpose.  

“I think Alaha is going to surprise us. This is not going to be someone we’re never going to hear from again,” said Bennett.