On the first morning of the new school year, my mother asked me to accompany my brothers to their elementary school. She was not well and couldn’t do it herself.

I was happy she had asked because it would be a chance for me to see my brothers’ school—what the building looked like, what the playground was like and who their classmates were. My brothers studied hard at home and were among the best students in the entire school. I was eager to see where they spent their days learning.

It was early in the morning when we left the house that day, the weather cool. We walked, and I played with my brothers along the way. When we arrived at the school, I saw there were many boys already playing in the schoolyard. They were running and jumping and calling out to each other loudly. My bothers ran toward their friends and chimed in noisily with the other voices.

At the moment the bell rang, all the boys stopped playing and scattered toward their different classrooms.

I wanted to go inside too, so I headed toward the office to ask the school manager a question or two. When I entered the office, I saw a woman at the counter. She wore a tattered dress and was speaking to the manager who stood behind the tall counter.

As I neared, I could hear her plaintive voice. She was begging to register her child. “Please, Sir. Please,” she pleaded.

“I’m sorry. We can’t do that. You have not paid the fees for Afghans,” answered the man. He looked down at the woman’s hands.

“I don’t have the money,” she replied. “I have four children who need to study and no husband. Your fees are too much for me. I work in other people’s houses, but I don’t bring in even enough money to live.” She held her hands together and began to cry.

The manager stood there, quiet. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but I knew he felt sorry for her.

The woman turned and left the office. So did I. I had forgotten what it was I had wanted to ask the manager.

On the far side of the yard, there was a chair. I walked toward it, sat down. I thought about the woman I had seen, imagined what she must have felt like, being unable to provide an education for her children. She had no money, no money to give her children a chance to go to school, this school. I couldn’t breathe.

After I had been sitting there for a while, three Iranian women came out of the office. They were speaking Farsi, and stood close enough for me to hear.

The tall woman said, “I’m going to send my child to another school.”

“Why?” asked the woman on her right.

“Because I saw some Afghan students among the children. I don’t want any of my son’s classmates to be Afghan.”

I took in a deep breath and smiled at the irony of the moment: two mothers with completely different perspectives. Here I had thought I was going to have one of the most special memories of my life, taking my brothers to school, but I was wrong. As I stood and walked out of the playground, I asked myself whether the government of Iran really, truly needed the money they were asking the Afghan families to pay.

By Zeinab