[Today's blog is by Barbara R. Thompson, a founder of ICS, who is working on a book about her 15 years of experience with refugees.]
I was surprised to see how pale and anxious Fahima and Farida appeared on their first day of school. Most children are a bit nervous in a new school, but Fahima and Farida were terrified.
I think of these sisters each year when students start back to school at ICS. At 5 and 7, Fahima and Farida Bostan Ali arrived at school near the end of ICS's first year in 2003. They were survivors of the wars in Afghanistan. I'd met them with their family some weeks earlier, and I was impressed by their playful energy and self-confidence. They seemed both younger and older than American children their own age.
Now as new students, Fahima and Farida cowered in their classrooms. Their faces were pale and blank, and they kept their eyes on the floor. Fahima refused to speak at all.
Later, while drinking tea with their family, I heard their story. Fahima and Farida had been carpet workers as refugees in Pakistan, valued for the tight knots they could tie with their small fingers. The sisters worked the 7 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. shift for a dollar or so a week. They had started working when their father was disabled in serious construction accident, and their wages were essential to their family's survival.
The shop where Fahima and Farida worked was cold, and the hook and blade tool they used for cutting knots was dangerous in the hands of small, tired children. There was a constant threat of blinding injury, and cuts that left their elbows permanently scarred. If Fahima and Farida worked too slowly to please the foreman, he beat them.
After work, Fahima and Farida went to school until early evening. Here, they were also beaten, this time for infractions like falling asleep in class or not completing their homework. Beaten at work and at school, they literally spent their lives waiting for the next blow to fall.
"They didn't beat me yet!" This was Fahima's happy report to her family after her first day of school at ICS.
Her fear of being hit by an adult did not die easily. She spoke her first words in school several weeks later, when a classmate asked her to draw a picture. Because of her work history, at age 5, Fahima had better fine motor skills than most adults, and she was a gifted artist. Other students began to ask her for drawings, and Fahima began to speak to them. The next time I saw her, she was racing toward the playground, laughing with a group of friends.