It was the first of Mehr, the beginning of the school year in Iran. The Ministry of Education had just declared that each Afghan student had to pay 220,000 Tomans in order to attend school. After the decree, most Afghan students had to leave their schools because their families were unable to afford the cost.
While Iranian children were studying, young Afghan children were working in stores and shopping malls. The Iranian people didn’t seem to be concerned about this. When I would speak with them, they would say, “Oh, that’s too bad. They shouldn’t do that to you.” But no one was upset enough to do anything about it. They simply pitied us.
In my family, there were four children who needed schooling. At night, I talked with God. I asked him why the Iranians treated us that way. Were they not Muslims too? What was the difference between an Afghan child and an Iranian child? And why should an Afghan be prohibited from studying in such a way? I saw my dreams of becoming educated drifting away.
My father was depressed and quiet. He did not speak much. Most of the time, he looked pensive, serious. The Ministry’s demand for payment from the Afghans was not the first time my father had experienced discrimination as a refugee. I was never sure what he was thinking about, but I knew our situation took a great toll on him.
One afternoon, my mother passed the street where the school was located. She heard the school bell ring and saw all the children coming out of their classrooms.
“Good heavens,” she said when she got home. “I wish my children could go to school too.”
I was most worried about my brother, who had been a top student in his school. He had a grade point average of 20, the highest score a student could get. And when I thought about how talented he was and that he was not permitted to study just because of money, it made me angry and unhappy.
One month into the school year, though, the Ministry of Education decreased the fees to only 50,000 Tomans. That was the best news. My brother and I registered. I was to attend Vahid High School.
On my first day of school the day was warm. During first break I joined other students who mingled outside enjoying the weather. Two students came up to me and asked if I was new.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did you just register today?” asked one girl.
She tilted her head and looked at me more closely. “Why?” she asked.
“Because of the money.”
“So you’re Afghan, poor. Our friends – they’re Afghan too, and they couldn’t come to school because their families couldn’t pay the money either.”
“But now,” said the second girl, “it’s late. How will you catch up with your lessons?”
“All I can do is try my best,” I answered.
As we returned to class my two new friends offered me a seat near them in the classroom. Some students were talking and joking with each other, laughing. I heard a tall girl talking about someone.
“Who are you talking about?” I wanted to know.
“We are talking about Mr. Abdi, our math teacher. Do you know him?” she asked.
“No, I don’t. What kind of person is he?”
“He’s very serious, strict, and very good at his job,” answered one of the girls.
Suddenly a tall, thin man with black eyes and black hair entered the classroom. He wore a black suit. He placed his briefcase on the table and began reading the list of students’ names.
“Is there anyone here whose name I did not call?” he asked.
I raised my hand.
“Are you a new student? Which high school were you at during the last month?
“I wasn’t in any high school. I am Afghan, and my registration was delayed.”
Mr. Abdi clenched his jaw. His dark eyes narrowed. “You mean, you don’t know anything about the last lessons! I don’t care that you had a problem. How are you planning to catch up with the class? I won’t teach you anything of the previous lessons. You need to study them by yourself.”
All the students were looking at me.
“If you think you cannot catch up, leave my class right now.”
I felt like a bucket of cold water had just been emptied on my head. I was embarrassed, humiliated in front of all the students. I didn’t know what to do. I knew not to retort – I would have been expelled. So, I asked permission to leave the class, and that was my first lesson at Vahid High School.