"Tell me about Afghanistan."
The English tutor looks expectantly at Nilofar Mulakhail as they sit on the living room floor of a Bloomington apartment, weeks after the Taliban takeover forced the country into chaos.
Mulakhail replies that her homeland is good, as if out of polite formality, or perhaps she does not know what to make of such a broad question. Prodded further, she elaborates:
"It's not safe … no money, there's no working."
"Do you know the word 'crisis'?"
"A big problem."
The tutor, Molly Hauver, opens a workbook for their lesson and reads aloud a story about a woman who runs into trouble trying to see her friend at the hospital. She points to words from the anecdote and asks Mulakhail for their meaning: out of order, elevator, visit.
"What is friend?"
Mulakhail brightens and points at Hauver: "You."
* * *
Hauver began once-a-week visits in 2019 to Mulakhail and two other Afghan women who share the same apartment building. The women came on Special Immigrant Visas after their husbands aided American interests in Afghanistan, and they quickly became friends.
Finding rapport with Hauver was slower. She did not speak their native Pashto, nor did she share their Islamic faith. While the Afghan students donned hijabs and dresses, Hauver, a Christian, wore jeans and did not cover her shoulder-length hair.
They followed a painstaking journey of trying to understand each other, in ways that are playing out across the nation as the U.S. educates a wave of Afghans who have arrived during the 20-year war.
At-home tutors are especially important for Afghan mothers such as Mulakhail, who often tend to large families. Arrive Ministries, the refugee resettlement agency where Hauver volunteers, started its English program for Afghan women at the suggestion of Afghan men who did not want their wives to be left behind.
Mothers have less opportunity to learn English here than their husbands, who may already speak the language from their work as interpreters for Americans in Afghanistan or are learning it at their new jobs. And their children are on track to learn quickly at school.
Hauver and Mulakhail's interactions were formal and rudimentary at first, but over time their bond deepened beyond teacher and pupil.
During one visit, Mulakhail tells Hauver she will pray for her when she has foot surgery. And when Mulakhail's husband visits Kabul and must escape amid the Taliban takeover in August, Hauver comes over and they cry together. She says she will pray for her, adding, "Nilofar, you know I love you."
Learning new words is one matter; grasping a new culture is another.
Hauver explains the meaning of Christmas, and Mulakhail shares the significance of Eid. Hauver asks if she will take the kids trick-or-treating, but Mulakhail is not interested in Halloween. "It's not our culture," she replies.
Mulakhail married at 15. With shorter life spans and more hardship, teacher and student realize, Afghans view time much differently than Americans do.
Upon hearing that Hauver wed at 31, Mulakhail and another Afghan student double over in shocked laughter.
"Here in America, people get married at 30, at 40," Hauver says.
"Ohhh, very old."
Mulakhail considers herself quite old at 41. But Hauver, who is 54, tells her, "I don't feel old."
Mulakhail has five daughters and one son, spanning ages 5 to 21. She and her husband did not advance far in their education in Afghanistan, but they expect to send their children to college in Minnesota. Their daughters will wed much later than Mulakhail did — only after they finish their schooling. The girls' fear, she says, is "I get married with baby, I am tired, no study."
Hauver is a mother of four children ages 15 to 22 and tells Mulakhail that her family is large by American standards, even if Afghans consider it small. Hauver works part-time at a garden center to help pay for her son's higher education, trying to avoid loans. Mulakhail doesn't know the word loan, but she understands Hauver's point about college: "No cheap."
Mulakhail eventually befriends her tutor on Facebook. Hauver wishes that she had pictures of them together, but Mulakhail will not be photographed, in keeping with her cultural traditions.
* * *
Seeing his wife's progress, Mulakhail's husband, Sher Mohammad Mulakhail, asks Hauver one day who is going to teach him. He served as a security guard for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul and now works at Walmart, but his English is spotty. Only female volunteers have signed up for the tutoring program, and Afghan customs segregate activities by gender. Hauver's husband starts visiting once a month to talk with him over tea.
The Mulakhail children are practically fluent in English after just three years in America, and Mulakhail laments that she doesn't always understand what they say. She watches cartoons with them to improve.
During one tutoring session, they talk about how the kids are happy to be back at school, how Mulakhail used her burgeoning English to speak with her youngest child's kindergarten teacher.
"Are you able to call home and talk with family?" Hauver asks.
"Do you know the word instability? There is a lot of instability."
"Yeah, right now it's not good."
The Mulakhails had planned soon to receive family friends who escaped the Taliban and are staying in Fort Pickett, Va., but the evacuees are still stuck there, and the Mulakhails don't know what will happen. In the meantime, they fear for their family back in Afghanistan, particularly Sher Mohammad's brother and ill father. During one lesson, Hauver asks Mulakhail if she knows the word wants.
"Wants," Mulakhail repeats, quizzically looking at her husband, who had stepped in.
"You want to visit Afghanistan. You want peace in Afghanistan," Hauver says, as the Mulakhails nod.
For another lesson, Hauver comes over with a children's book, "Four Feet, Two Sandals." It's about a friendship forged by two girls in a Pakistani refugee camp, where they share a set of sandals until one departs for America. After they read it, she asks, "Nilofar, what can you tell me about the book?"
Mulakhail pauses. "Listening to the story, I am sad. It's a very difficult time."
* * *
Hauver brings over homemade pumpkin bread on one occasion, and a dish called Afghan spaghetti on another. Mulakhail likes the latter, though she says Hauver forgot the green chiles. One October morning, Hauver is excited to show her students how to bake chocolate chip cookies. But Mulakhail cannot join them because her husband's father has just died in Afghanistan, throwing the family into mourning.
The women meet two weeks later.
"As-Salaam-Alaikum," Hauver says. Then: "How is that? Good? Bad?"
Mulakhail praises her pronunciation. Hauver gives her condolences about her father-in-law.
"Sher Mohammad is very sad," Mulakhail says.
He was in his late 70s, she says. Hauver tells her she's glad her husband got to see his father in Afghanistan over the summer one last time, and Mulakhail nods solemnly.
They talk about how Mulakhail and her husband are starting more intensive schooling with Bloomington Community Education. As a wave of Afghan evacuees arrive, Hauver says she will try to help those families, too.
"But I will not forget about you," she promises. "I will still see you every week."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210