Kindergarten teacher lends a hand to Afghan refugees

LAS CRUCES — When dozens of Afghan families came to Las Cruces last year seeking refuge and a place to find support and solace, Mahsa Azma answered the call.

Mahsa, a Head Start pre-kindergarten teacher at Las Cruces Public Schools, led two weekly classes to teach English and other skills to Afghan parents navigating their new life in the United States.

“I told them I would like to help because I am an advocate, not just a teacher,” Mahsa said.

LCPS School Board Vice President Teresa Tenorio recommended Mahsa to the LCPS Bilingual Education, Translation, Interpretation and Community Outreach team, believing she might be the right person to offer assistance to the growing Afghan population.

Mahsa and her husband emigrated from Iran in 1995 to attend New Mexico State University. She said they’ve been in New Mexico ever since and consider it a second home.

Because they both grew up and lived in Iran, Mahsa and her husband speak and write Farsi. Many Afghan refugees speak Dari and/or Pashto. Mahsa said Dari is like a more formal version of Farsi and both dialects use the Arabic alphabet. Pashto is quite a different language.

The refugees would translate from Pashto into Dari, and then Mahsa would respond in Farsi or Dari, after getting used to the new dialect.

“I think we tried to be their cultural advisor and make them feel comfortable here,” she said.

A family involved

It was not just Mahsa who was involved in helping refugees. Her husband and 18-year-old daughter, Nika Mansouri Rad, offered help wherever they could.

Las Cruces accepted more than 200 Afghan refugees in the city at the end of 2021. LCPS enrolled 62 refugee students in the spring semester.

Nika, a recent graduate of Centennial High, bonded with two of the six Afghan students – two girls – who attended the school. Nika speaks and understands Farsi.

When Mahsa and Nika learned the Dari dialect, they needed the refugees to speak slowly, but months later they are able to have comfortable conversations.

“I basically learned to do everything one step at a time and do everything at their own pace to make sure they were comfortable,” Nika said.

Before the pandemic, the Azma family traveled to Iran every summer where Nika had to dress in more modest clothing and try to fit in with some of the cultural expectations of women in Iran.

Because of this, Nika said she was able to relate to the girls attending Centennial classes and help serve as an inspiration to live in the United States.

“I’m really happy that they had someone who was already completely adapted to the (Western) culture,” Nika said. “(I tried) to put them at ease, so they know they can talk to me.”

Nika will be attending NMSU in the fall to study communication disorders in hopes of becoming a speech-language pathologist. She will be living with her parents for her first year and plans to keep in touch with the two girls she grew up with.

“I felt proud that I was able to do this because there was no one else at my school who could help them,” Nika said. “I really wanted to do what I could.”

Nika wants to do more volunteer work in the future with some of the refugees who remain in Las Cruces.

It’s still not enough

Mahsa said there were a lot of challenges that came with her weekly class. Sometimes she acted more as a counselor than a teacher.

Although she had common cultural experiences – Iran and Afghanistan are neighboring countries, Mahsa said she knew much of Afghan culture – their personal experiences were different.

More than 100,000 refugees fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the country. The U.S. military helped many refugees flee to the United States, providing them with temporary shelter at eight military bases, including Holloman Air Force Base and nearby Fort Bliss, before settling wherever they could find shelter. work or accommodation.

“They’ve been through a lot of trauma, so they definitely need a lot of guidance, someone to sit up and listen to them and give them support,” Mahsa said.

Many of the refugees were doctors, pilots, teachers and other professionals in Afghanistan, but now they apply for even the lowest-paying jobs in the United States.

“They want to support families, and most of them have large families. They have more than five, six children,” Mahsa said. “It’s really hard for them.”

Many refugees who first settled in Las Cruces left for better work opportunities. Mahsa said her class started with 25 students, but by the end of the school year there were only four students.

“Many nights I cried on the way home thinking about what they went through or all the challenges they face here,” Mahsa said. “We have a…lack of resources here at Las Cruces. It’s very difficult for them.”

Mahsa’s course ended in early May, but she hopes it will resume in July as long as there is still interest.

Mahsa said she wants Las Crucens to know that these families are trying to do all they can to rebuild their lives and need patience and understanding from the community. She asked the community to show empathy.

“Don’t comment if you don’t know what’s going on,” Mahsa said. “It really hurts their feelings. It can do very deep damage, more than they can tolerate.”

Report for America staff member Miranda Cyr can be reached at [email protected] Where @mirandacyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at

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