KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — The saying goes, “friends are the family you choose.” It was something that became crucial for a teenager from Afghanistan. He enrolled at East Kentwood High School this year and found a home away from home.
Zahir, whose last name we are not sharing for his safety as a refugee, played a lot of soccer while growing up in Afghanistan.
“We played in the street with our friends because we don’t have big fields like Americans,” he said.
At 17 years old, the sport of soccer is what grounded Zahir when he fled his home country and came to West Michigan.
The journey started with an email to leave the country then Zahir and his family went to the airport. Zahir was the only person who could leave with the American soldiers. They took him to Qatar, then he moved to Italy before heading to Pennsylvania and eventually Michigan.
As for living away from his family, he said, “they’re good. We are separate, but we are doing well. That’s life. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Zahir said he chose East Kentwood after working with Bethany Christian Services to settle in West Michigan because of the diversity at the school and the programs available for people still learning English. It includes a support class where he can work on any subject with the help of an English as a second language teacher.
Tina Pribbernow is the instructor for that class and noticed Zahir’s attitude right away.
“That dedication, that commitment, and that kindness just speak volumes to his character. He is one of the most optimistic kids I’ve ever met,” said Pribbernow.
She also pointed out the misconceptions English language learners frequently deal with.
“If someone doesn’t necessarily understand the language, here is a testament to the fact that he is incredibly intelligent just because he might not be able to express that readily. So really just taking a moment to understand that everyone has differences, everyone has challenges,” Pribbernow explained.
It was on the field where Zahir found his family away from home. Varsity boys soccer coach Carl Warfield watched as his players welcomed Zahir into their brotherhood, even noticing when he seemed tired and weak during practice.
“I don’t eat a lot of the American food because there is a big difference in the culture,” Zahir said.
It led to him not eating at school. His new brothers — his team — figured out what he liked and made sure he had plenty of it.
Warfield said it did not surprise him because the diversity of experiences his students have often leads them to great things.
“There are so many of them doing so many different things from medicine to transportation to running their own businesses. They have just thrived. It is the American dream,” Warfield said.
Zahir’s American dream focused more on his immediate future and the family he left behind.
“Before, I had a lot of dreams to do a lot of things. But now, my only dream is to be with my family, together,” Zahir said.
Several weeks ago, that dream came true when his parents were able to make it to another state. Zahir finally joined them in time for Thanksgiving.
“It was the best moment of my life that I saw my family after a long time. It was good. It was amazing,” he said.
Zahir’s sisters and grandparents are still in Afghanistan. He hopes to reunite with them eventually, too. But, for now, he is focused on the present, finishing high school and going on to study engineering. He is content that “the future will show us what will happen.”