Have a bowl. Have fork. Have a knife. Have spoon.
Sara studied the sentences she had written, part of an assignment to record the contents of her kitchen. Her English teacher, Miriam Bosveld, peered over her desk.
"Make sure to say 'I,' " Bosveld said, pointing to herself.
"I?" asked Sara.
"So you can write 'I have' and you also can say 'a.' "
Sara looked at her teacher blankly in their suburban Minneapolis classroom, her pencil hesitant; she was used to knowing the answers.
She had been an accomplished student in her native language, Dari, when she arrived at her school in Kabul, Afghanistan last August to find the doors shut. The watchman told her and her friends to leave; the Taliban were coming. Sara went home in tears. "They closed the school and we are going back to the dark side," she told her mother, who began crying, too.
Days later, they escaped. Sara resumed her education at a school for nontraditional students in Minnesota this March — just as the Taliban stirred global outrage for defaulting on a promise to allow girls to return to secondary school.
While girls in Kabul cried and protested, Sara eagerly anticipated school each morning in Crystal, even if, on the cusp of her 19th birthday, she felt like a first-grader as she tried to grasp an entirely new language. Here, she had a plan, a future, unending prospects.
'If I was [in Kabul]," Sara said later through an interpreter, "what would I be doing without going to school and not going out?'"
Sara's parents, Rana and Mohammad, left Afghanistan for Iran during the Taliban's first regime in the 1990s, when girls and women were barred from school and the workforce. The couple regretted never learning to read and write amid so much unrest, and they returned home in 2003 upon the birth of Sara, their first of six children, determined to give her the opportunities they lost. (The Star Tribune is withholding the family's last name after they cited safety concerns.)
Girls after puberty face an array of restrictions in traditional Afghan culture, and even before the Taliban's return last year, some neighbors criticized Mohammad for giving so much freedom to Sara. They gossiped. Where was she going without her parents? Couldn't he control his daughter?
Sara attended an all-girls school in the mornings, and spent afternoons running her own shop for brides to have their hair, makeup and henna done. She operated a sewing business from home late into the night.
At the end of Sara's junior year, militants attacked her school with artillery fire. Sara and her classmates defied teachers' orders and ran outside, covering their faces with scarves in case assailants threw acid at them. Rana came running toward Sara after hearing the explosion from their nearby home, praising God she was alive.
By Sara's senior year, Taliban fighters were advancing in the countryside. Her maternal grandfather a few hours from the capital long had faced threats from the extremist group to stop working for a firm that serviced U.S. military bases, but he refused to be cowed.
When Sara went to visit him for a family party last June, she was horrified by what she saw at the front door: her grandfather's body, awash in blood. He had been slain by the Taliban.
She collapsed, screaming. Sara loved him so much that she felt as though she had lost a limb.
She feared the Taliban would come for her father next. Mohammad worked as a security officer at the Kabul airport. "Your dad is working with infidels," some acquaintances said, shunning their family. Two months after killing her grandfather, the Taliban seized control of the city. Still, Mohammad reported for duty day after day as desperate crowds besieged the airport to flee Afghanistan. Gunfire exploded. People died before his eyes.
He was nearing approval for a Special Immigrant Visa that would bring the family to safety in the U.S., and his boss told him it was time to escape. And so, a week later, Sara fought through the throngs at the airport alongside her family. As she held her 10-year-old brother's hand at the gate, a woman tried to grab him and pretend he was her own son to talk her way onto the flight.
In the plane, Sara huddled on the floor, knees to her chest, drowsy but too afraid to sleep. Two days later, a suicide bomber at the airport killed 183 people. Relatives feared the family had died, unable to reach Mohammad after his phone broke in the commotion. By then, Sara's family had landed in Kuwait. They moved to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for two months and arrived at a hotel for evacuees in suburban Minneapolis in November.
The shock of it all lingered. Sara collapsed at Camp Atterbury and fainted at the hotel. When the ambulance came, her father told a paramedic that she had PTSD.
Sara always had been ambitious, active and sociable, and the empty days dragged. A case manager took her family to the Mall of America, where they ate burgers, rode a roller coaster and bought clothes; they had left Kabul with only what they were wearing. Many days, she would walk around outside the hotel in tears, overwhelmed by all she had lost. Sara's spirits lifted when she passed others on the street.
"I saw the American people when they were walking free without any fear or anything," Sara said, "and then I was thinking that I am one of them now."
Sara was still at the hotel the December day she should have graduated from high school in Kabul.
By the time the family moved into a home in Golden Valley in January, she learned that she was too old to return to a traditional classroom. Sara enrolled at a public school in Crystal where she could take English classes in order to earn her GED, then attend college.
She had taken some English in Kabul and Indiana and knew the alphabet. But she began at the lowest of four levels, and her teacher, Bosveld, predicted it would take Sara at least two years to learn basic English.
Sara's early assignments entailed flipping through a workbook of pictures and words and writing down what she had and what she didn't.
One morning, she wrote "yes" beside an image of a car. Her mind was still in Kabul, where her family enjoyed a comfortable life and had a vehicle. Now they couldn't afford one.
Sara had to take two buses for nearly an hour to travel less than 5 miles to school. One time she missed the bus and a stranger drove her to class after finding her weeping on the street. Her father found the bus route to his job at a printing company in St. Louis Park so long and circuitous that he began traveling by bicycle. They all had a good laugh when some elders at a party for Afghans gave Sara's little siblings a few dollars and the children presented the bills to their father with a flourish, saying now he could buy a car.
Bosveld told her to write no.
"So you would say I don't have a car in Minnesota," Bosveld said.
Sara wrote that she had a dog. But the pet, too, was in Kabul.
Then came the questions about which relatives she had. Sara paused for a long time upon seeing "grandfather" in her workbook.
Finally, she wrote "yes." She had lost one grandfather, but the other was still alive in Afghanistan.
Sara was the youngest of of 10 students in the class. She sat next to a couple from Tajikistan, sometimes leaning on them for help because their languages were similar.
But she was eager to befriend everybody. She picked up a West African classmate's little boy visiting from day care, playfully spun him around and offered him her potato chips. She excitedly showed her classmates the eyeliner and lipstick she bought from Target. Sara missed doing makeup and wished she could have her old business back. Instead, she was considering a part-time job preparing food at a medical clinic.
She claimed that English was easy, except for spelling. Bosveld gave the class a list of eight words to spell and told them the correct answers afterward. She asked Sara how many she had right. "Three," said Sara, holding up as many fingers and laughing sheepishly.
Bosveld told her it was OK.
"We just practice," the teacher said.
Bit by bit, Sara learned how to converse about the weather, geography and dates. Bosveld knew that Sara and many classmates wanted to study nursing, so she led them through discussions about jobs in the medical field. Sara learned to play bingo.
She stayed 40 minutes after school each day to wait for the bus, catching up with her Afghan friends on WhatsApp as the janitor rolled in. The friends bemoaned how their lives had stagnated under the new regime.
When Sara reached home she liked to go running. In Minnesota, Sara noticed, the neighbors never confronted her father about her comings and goings. Instead, they fixed her father's bike and blew the snow off the family's driveway.
Bosveld paired Sara with a Mexican student for one assignment about communicating future plans. Sara flipped through a book showing words and pictures of activities, and excitedly pointed to a picture of a birthday celebration. Her birthday was in four days.
"Is happy birthday?" asked her classmate.
Sara nodded, adding, "Nineteen."
"Oh, celebration with family?"
"Yes … food, cake," said Sara.
Sara showed her a picture on her phone of Kabuli pulao, a rice dish she was going to make. She decided to hold a celebration a few days early, to avoid the beginning of Ramadan. The next day, Sara went to the bakery at Cub Foods and decided on a red and white marble cake.
As a joke to the family friend who took her to the store (and interpreted for this story) Sara held up a "9" and "1" birthday candle with a mischievous laugh, reversing the numbers of her age. Back home, everyone gathered around as she poured sodas and streamed a show from YouTube by her favorite Afghan singer, Aryana Sayeed. A friend from the hotel came by with flowers.
Sara blew out her candles.
Her birthday wish was the same as last: to finish school and go to college. This time, she also hoped to have her own business in America. Over their meal, Sara said she might want to open an Afghan restaurant, one of a string of dreams she had for her new life. Mohammad was encouraging but amused, noting that he couldn't keep track of her aspirations.
"You want to do all this?" he said, smiling.
"Yes," said Sara. "I want to do it."