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APS Newcomer Program Inaccessible To Many Refugee Families

Hannah Colton / KUNM
Masihullah Naseri waits to cross Central Avenue in southeast Albuquerque on his way to summer school.

Dozens of refugee families resettle in Albuquerque each year, and their children begin attending school here. In mid-August, Albuquerque Public Schools is slated to launch a program for newcomers, but immigrant advocates say it’s been planned poorly and will be hard to access. For many refugee families, getting transportation to a special school outside their neighborhood is nearly impossible. 

It’s 7 a.m., and 9-year-old Masiullah Naseri is waiting at a city bus stop on a busy street in southeast Albuquerque.

Naseri’s mother, Feriba Shahsawar, is taking him to summer school, and it’s a bit of a long haul. Naseri carries a Power Rangers backpack and a khaki safari-style hat.

"It’s my field trip hat," he explains, "for when I go to the zoo. Like when I go to places that are pretty hot."

Naseri will be in fourth grade soon. If you ask his favorite subject, he’ll say math, but also music and recess. Those fun class periods are something he never had in school back in his hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan.

The bus arrives and we board, along with other groggy morning commuters.

Shahsawar and her husband brought Naseri to the U.S. when he was in first grade. Things had gotten too dangerous in Kabul; she says there were bombings every day. They decided to leave after her husband’s 26-year old brother was killed in an explosion.  

Now, three years later, Naseri loves going to school. He's pretty confident about it, but his mom is worried because he doesn’t read or write English.

"Because he's my son, it is my responsibility," she says, "about him, about learning, about school."

Naseri takes an English as a Second Language class, but just for a few hours a week. APS does provide interpreters, but only for certain meetings like parent-teacher conferences. So it’s hard for Shahsawar to know what’s going on. Still, she’s determined for her son to get a good education.

After another 10-minute walk, we arrive at summer school. Naseri, eager to see his friends, tries to shoo off his mother, but we accompany him to the classroom where Shahsawar thanks his teachers before we leave. 

This school, La Mesa Elementary, is where Naseri would have to get to every day during the school year if he were to be a part of the APS Newcomer Program. 

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM
Masihullah Naseri and his mother outside his summer school program.

Back at her apartment off of Central, Shahsawar pours tea with cardamom into glass mugs.

She hadn’t heard of the Newcomer Program until I brought it up. She says she would like her son to be in a special program – she’s concerned his English won’t be good enough for science and history –  but she can’t keep doing the hour-and-a-half long commute twice a day.

"The program sounds very good," she says, "but the transportation is a big problem."

Mahbooba Pannah of the New Mexico Asian Family Center is interpreting for us. Also from Afghanistan, Pannah has her own history of struggling to educate children; as a young person under the Taliban regime, she secretly taught others to read and write. Now in Albuquerque, she's a case worker for lots of other refugee families, and she says many are worse off than Shahsawar and her family.

"She has a good education, and she has her husband who works, and only one kid, so her problem is like half of some single moms'," says Pannah. "My other community members are single mothers, and they don’t have education, and they have more than one kid. So they have to worry about bringing food on the table. They don't have time to worry about school!"

In Kabul, Shahsawar worked as an engineer. Now, her husband pays the bills working nights, packaging bread. She wants to learn English and get a good job here someday, but it's not easy having to make choices between her son’s education and her own

"For summer school, I sacrificed my six weeks of [community college] class. I decided to just cancel the whole thing, to spend my time to pick up my son and drop off my son," said Shahsawar, "but I cannot do this all year long. I have to do my own things. I have to study my English too."

For now, Shahsawar says, she’ll have to put her son back on the APS school bus, heading to the English-speaking teachers at his normal elementary.


Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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