ALEXANDRIA, Va. (DC News Now) — A 12th-grade student in Alexandria was recently honored as one of 15 ‘Girls Leading Change’ by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at a ceremony at the White House.
Zahra Rahimi is a student at The International Academy, a program within Alexandria City Public Schools for students who have been in the United States for five years or fewer. In the program, the students learn English while they attend classes for credit in order to ensure their timely graduation.
Rahimi told DC News Now in an interview that she came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2019 with her parents and five younger siblings seeking safety and better opportunities.
“Getting an education here feels like a blessing,” she said. “It’s not something that everyone can get, especially women and girls in Afghanistan.”
Just months after she came to the country, the U.S. saw the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting her to resume her education virtually. However, her teachers told DC News Now she was an outstanding student in those days.
“I remember that she was humble but very persistent,” said Gabe Elias, an 11th-grade teacher at The International Academy.
Fellow International Academy teacher John Humphrey remarked that Rahimi was one of very few students who always kept their cameras on during Zoom classes, and often spent lunch over Zoom talking with him. They shared poetry and discussed her writing.
Once in-person activities resumed, Rahimi spearheaded The Heart of Asia club, which she created to encourage numerous international students to celebrate and share their cultures with each other. That club enabled her to make presentations on Afghan culture and holidays.
“People always have seen the dark side of Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s always been war. I wanted to show them the bright side of Afghanistan as well.”
She also worked with the grassroots organization NoVA RAFT (Resettling Afghan Families Together) to create a literacy training and reading support group, where she tutors dozens of students and teaches them how to read English.
“When I first came here I only knew two words, ‘hi, and hello,'” she said. “I didn’t know how to read, how to write. I didn’t know the alphabet in English very well. I wanted to do something to make the students who are just arriving to the United States… to have that support and someone to help them.”
Dan Altman, NoVA RAFT’s organizer, said Rahimi “went from being largely lost and confused to really being in command of her environment.”
Rahimi also became the first student representative from The International Academy to serve on the Alexandria City School Board.
Altman was the one who nominated Rahimi for the Girls Leading Change honor and accompanied her to the White House.
“It was a great experience and I will never forget that,” Rahimi said. “It gave me a sense of having home. Being an immigrant is not always easy or an easy feeling. But that day when I went there, I was feeling like I have a home. I belong to somewhere.”
Rahimi told DC News Now her next step is college and has aspirations to run for political office, work on documentaries and continue writing poetry.