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Film aims to help bring Afghan refugees to study in N.M.

July 31, 2018

When Afghan teenager Benazir Mohammadi’s family was taken by the Taliban, she eluded capture and was later forced to relocate to Indonesia, where she now lives at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Center.

Rather than despair, she let her life experiences instill resiliency and willpower to propel herself forward.

“While my future may look smaller than it did before, my dreams are bigger than they ever have been,” she wrote in an application to the New Mexico-based United World College-USA in March.

Through a collaboration between schools, her application was processed by the Desert Academy, an International Baccalaureate World School in Santa Fe where she hopes to spend her first year.

“There’s nothing I can’t do,” Mohammadi wrote.

A film titled The Staging Post, about teenage students like Mohammadi who live at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Center, a refuge focused on educational opportunities, will screen Tuesday night at the Violet Crown in the Santa Fe Railyard. It is part of an initiative to bring 10 teenage Afghan refugees, members of that country’s persecuted Hazara minority, including Mohammadi, to Desert Academy and the United World College-USA in Montezuma.

Collaboratively, these International Baccalaureate schools strive to change the futures of Afghan students through quality education while also connecting the local community to a worldwide refugee issue.

“Sometimes problems can feel insurmountable, but here’s a way that through opening our homes and connecting our schools we can be involved locally in an issue that’s affecting the whole world right now,” said Naomi Swinton, director of the Bartos Institute at United World College-USA.

A recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that 3.5 million refugee children did not attend school in 2016, and access to education is limited for displaced people around the globe. However, the organization only a few years ago made amendments to policies that previously made it harder for Afghan students to receive international schooling.

Khadim Dai, Hazara co-founder of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Center and cinematographer of The Staging Post, said refugees continue to sometimes have “fear of deportation, fear of prison” and that even founding the school in 2014 was a “risk.”

Dai said his commitment to education stems from knowing what life is like without it. In 2013, when he was 17, Dai’s high school in Pakistan was bombed.

“It inspired me because my classmates got killed, my close friends,” he said, adding that students at Cisarua are all too familiar of similar acts of violence and persecution by the Taliban. “I owed them something … I decided to raise my voice, their voice.”

The Staging Post is part of Dai’s efforts to raise awareness of refugee experiences and the importance of education.

“The focus of the film is the power of community and the power of education,” he said, adding that the Hazara people are the “most persecuted minority group from Afghanistan” and that most all of the student applicants have lived in refugee camps for at least two years. “Wherever I go, it doesn’t matter, my heart is with those kids.”

Swinton hopes the initiative won’t solely provide quality schooling to refugees but will also impact her other students. “Introducing students who have literally given up everything to pursue education — it’ll be inspiring for our kids as well,” she said.

Yann Lussiez, the head of school at Desert Academy, agrees.

“Students are looking for a deeper connection” he said, adding that his family hopes to host one of the students this fall and that one his daughters has voiced excitement not only to have an Afghan friend, but to have a “sister.” Lussiez said he has always surprised by teens’ “true desire to make a difference in the world. … This is just one way our students want to do that.”

Shona Casey, board president at Desert Academy, said parents are excited about the initiative’s potential to broaden young people’s worldviews.

“The more diversity we have in our schools, the more our children experience, and the world becomes smaller to them,” she said, describing The Staging Post as part of a big picture. “To watch a film like this where it’s showing the difficulties people are going through, but also overcoming it on their own … it can’t help but create a smaller world with compassion and empathy — and for me, a desire to help, to do something.”

Over the next several months, Swinton and Lussiez say, their priority is obtaining visas for the students and ensuringe they are able to enroll in classes in September.

While “it’s a learning curve,” Swinton said, organizers are working diligently to raise money to support the international students’ schooling and kick start a program they hope will last for years to come. Additionally, they said they’re looking for more host families for this coming school year and for 2019-20.

Dai, 22, who is on full scholarship at California Institute for the Arts, said he looks forward to seeing the ways these schools will alter futures.

Among the potential incoming students is a one who hopes to become an architect. Others include a volleyball player and a young man who dreams of working for NASA.

One of the applicants, Laila Rezae, wrote that the only way to ensure a bright future is to stay positive.

“I believe that after every hard situation, a happy situation is waiting to happen,” she wrote. “If I give up during hardship then I will miss out on the opportunity for the happiness that can follow it.”

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