By Flora Zempleni
Lailoma Ayubzai and her daughter, Tamana, are competing to see who can graduate college first.
At the moment, Ayubzai is ahead of Tamana by a few semesters.
For the 48-year-old refugee, being in college at all is a huge accomplishment. She didn’t think she would ever be able to go back to school after fleeing her home country of Afghanistan.
“I never believed one day I would go back to school,” Ayubzai said.
Ayubzai had arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 15, 2000, a single mother with six children. Once here, it had taken Ayubzai almost 10 years to get to college, slowed by work, children and a feeling of being too old for college.
Her initial stop in the U.S. had been New York City, although she said she didn’t know where she was at the time or where she was going.
At the airport there, someone who spoke Farsi said to her, “You’re so tired. You should spend the night here and tomorrow go home.”
“Home, where’s my home? I don’t know,” Ayubzai said.
She was originally from Afghanistan but had fled as war broke out, affecting her hometown of Herat. There she and her family were under attack, so they left. She moved back and forth between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran as her parents, husband and friends were killed. Finally she came to the U.S.
She was first flown to New York. Ayubzai said she didn’t know that she would travel any further, but she was to be taken to Lincoln, Nebraska, the next day.
In New York, she went to a hotel for the night.
“I didn’t hear any noise. No gun. No rocket. No bomb. Nobody knock (on) my door. No scary Taliban will come. Nobody will say, ‘Hey, you’re a single mother, you can’t stay here with six kids.’ It was fantastic.”
The next morning she was put on another plane. She didn’t know she was supposed to be leaving. She didn’t know where she was going.
But her son was sitting next to an Afghani man who had come to the U.S. 22 years ago, and when he asked where she was going, she guessed Washington, D.C. A sticker on her shirt had her destination on it, but she couldn’t read it. The Afghani man looked at her sticker and told her where she was going – Nebraska.
Ayubzai said she panicked. She didn’t know where Nebraska was. She thought it might be somewhere like Mexico.
The man reassured her and told her Nebraska was in the center of the U.S. He gave her a business card and $100, telling Ayubzai to call if she ever needed anything and warning her that while $100 may have gotten her food for a month in Afghanistan, it would last about a week in the U.S.
Two plane rides later, she arrived in Nebraska.
Looking out of the window all that the family could see was the dry, brown and yellow grass, dead from the late fall weather. Ayubzai felt dread.
Her children begged Ayubzai to go back home, to mountainous Herat. But they had to keep going.
As Ayubzai stepped off the plane she was met by people from Catholic Social Services, an organization that helps with refugee resettlement, who had a cart for her bags and were ready to take her to a new apartment.
They started leading Ayubzai to the baggage claim, ready to help her with the bags they expected a family of seven to have.
“I have nothing,” she said. Ayubzai had come with only her children.
She said the people who met her were shocked and asked her again if she had any bags, saying that sometimes people bring up to 10 with them.
“Why didn’t anyone understand me? Did America not know why I came here?” Ayubzai demanded. “I had nothing. That’s why I ran away here.
“I didn’t want to show emotions,” she said. “It was very, very sad.”
Once in Nebraska, Ayubzai was quickly enrolled in English courses, although she found it hard to keep going.
“Something was stopping me,” she said.
Ayubzai said everything was unfamiliar in Nebraska
Even the language seemed different than the British English she had briefly studied back in Afghanistan.
“Night and day was different, not just the language,” she said.
Tutors attempted to use college to entice her, telling her that if she got through English courses that she could go back to college.
But, that wasn’t enough. Ayubzai said she felt that she was too old to go to college. She had to work, and she had to look after her six children.
“Some people go in and out (of classes), said Susan Kash-Brown, assistant director of ESL at Southeast Community College in Lincoln. “Other parts of their lives collide; ESL is what falls off. Some people do get discouraged because they don’t feel like they’re getting enough.”
So it wasn’t until the fall of 2010 when she went to Lincoln Literacy, an organization that teaches the English language, to ask for an English tutor that she she stuck with it.
“Finally the kids grew up and finished classes,” she said, which allowed her to commit to learning English.
And something clicked.
“It was interesting,” she said. “I love it.”
From there she advanced quickly, moving to ESL classes at SCC, to a college prep course there and finally enrolling in college.
Ayubzai hadn’t thought that college would be possible for her anymore, but it had been something she had always wanted to return to after completing one and a half years of it in Afghanistan.
It’s been about four years since she started SCC courses and going has given her confidence.
“(Before), I was shy,” Ayubzai said. She would ask her children to handle tasks she didn’t feel comfortable with.
“Can you talk to the landlord,” she would ask them.
“Can you call?”
“Tell me how much are my bills.”
Now, she does all of these tasks herself.
“I know everything,” Ayubzai laughed. “My college credit with language is three or four years. I learn that much. After four years more, I will learn more and more and more. Life is so easy. You know language, life is easy. People think money is very important. No. Language is very important.”
Now, that she has passed through the language program at SCC, she is studying there to be a pharmacist, just like her daughter Tamana.
The days don’t seem to have enough hours for her. She wakes up, makes food for her children, goes to school early to get help at the tutoring center, eats lunch, goes to work, comes home, does homework and falls asleep. The next day, she does it all over again.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “No time to think, stress. Nothing is behind, not bills not school.”
Teachers tell her that they wish other students could work as hard and well as she does. Ayubzai said it’s the best praise that she gets.
“I love it,” she laughed. “I love it!”
Sometimes she gets told to change what she’s doing, to become a nurse instead. She’s told the schooling is easier.
But she always says no.
“Pharmacy is hard,” Ayubzai admitted. “(But) one day I want to do that. Nothing will stop me.”
It’s a new dream, one that’s changed since she lived in Afghanistan. There she had wanted to be a journalist or a doctor. Her parents had pushed education.
“War took everything,” Ayubzai sighed.
Now she pushes her children to stay in school and do well. All of them have graduated high school with good grades, she said. Only Tamana, who is in her early twenties now, has followed her mother’s footsteps and gone to college at SCC while working two jobs after graduating from Lincoln Northeast High School.
Tamana said her mom always told to her children, “Let me show you guys. If I can do it, you can do it.”
So, she works hard to do well at school
Kash-Brown said Ayubzai can always be found studying in the library.
If Ayubzai doesn’t understand something she goes to the tutoring center and asks for help until she has figured it out.
When Ayubzai goes home after school, she sits down and studies
“Oh, my God, she just studies, studies. I have to do the same,” her son told her.
But she doesn’t just set an example for her children, she tries to help other students as well.
“In school I see students who say, ‘Oh, this is too hard’” Ayubzai said. “I say, ‘It is not hard. If I can do it, of course you can.’”
Ayubzai’s hard work has inspired her children.
“She’s actually one of the main reasons I go to school,” Tamana said. “She’s taken care of us. I see her struggle every day. Seeing it not affect her makes me strive to be like her.”
Ayubzai wants to take advantage of her education for the people who can’t.
“I am doing (this) for me for my heart. I am doing (this) for the women, for the girls in Afghanistan. They have no chance to go to school. The day I get my diploma I will yell and say ‘Afghani girl, this is for you. This is for you. You have a dream and you cannot go to school.’ I am doing for that, because Afghani girls, they really love education,” Ayubzai said. “They kill them, they burn. They don’t let them (go to school). I want to go for these girls.”
When Ayubzai graduates, she wants to work with the United Nations for a year or two at refugee camps around the world, helping people who are in a situation she was once in.
Then she wants to come back to Lincoln and start a job.
After that she wants to write a book about her experiences.
But for now her focus is on finishing SCC in three or four quarters and then hopefully going to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for two years before going to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
That’s where Ayubzai said she starts to get concerned.
“One thing I do worry about my Med Center classes (is) if financial aid not pay my scholarship. I worry because the young kids, they take a loan from the government, they are still young, maybe 20, 25,” Ayubzai said. “They working for 22 years and pay back that loan, right. Each time, for me I am thinking ‘God, please not this happen for me. If I take a loan and I finish college, maybe I will be 55 or 60 years old.’”
She said she doesn’t how she would be able to work long enough to pay off a loan.
“It not close my way, not red light in my way,” she said. “But I am still thinking about this one.”
But for now she’s focusing on continuing to work at college as she has been.
“If I get life 100 times, I wouldn’t change,” she said. “War took everything from me. My family. My home. But it cannot take my smart brain.”