Finding Her Voice

Zahra traveled halfway across the world for a better education and a chance at freedom.
Zahra with her host parents, Jill and Jim Gilsrud, in downtown White Bear Lake.

In White Bear, we have choices when it comes to our children’s education, and we don’t need to worry about walking down the street alone. It’s easy to forget that this is not the case in much of the world, and for Zahra, a 17-year-old sophomore at Liberty Classical Academy from Kabul, Afghanistan, it was her reality until arriving here to stay with host family Kim and Jim Gilsrud.

“Life in Afghanistan is tough,” Zahra says. As a child, her family moved from Kabul to Iran when the Taliban attacked the city, and later returned. But fighting continues. She has seven siblings—three of them sisters—and her parents have sent all four girls abroad to give them a chance at a better education...and freedom. “I have two sisters that are in the United States and they helped me to apply to Liberty Classical Academy.” She was accepted, got the scholarship, and after a long visa process, arrived in September 2015; she will stay until she graduates.

A family friend of the Gilsruds who coordinates housing for international students told Kim Gilsrud they were trying to find a host family for a girl from Afghanistan, and that she couldn’t come otherwise. “Our kids are grown and married,” says Kim. “It was right.”

Just because the timing was right doesn’t mean the transition went perfectly. Zahra had some idea of what the U.S. would look like from pictures her sisters showed her, but it didn’t prepare her for the “different world, different experience, different life,” she says.

“I showed her a bathroom to take a shower when she got here, not knowing that she probably didn’t know how to run the shower—basic things you take for granted,” Kim says.

For Zahra, people wearing shorts, and boys and girls in the same classroom, took some getting used to, but she’s adapted quickly. Her favorite thing? “Everything,” she beams.

She’s learned how to ride a bike—after a literal crash course her first week here. “I had no idea there was a place where girls couldn’t ride bikes,” Kim says, “I felt terrible!” And she’s discovered swimming. “She sunk like a rock the first time in the pool,” but got lessons from a friend and “is a little mermaid now,” Kim reports.

The family dog, Lucy, has become a best friend. And her first winter came with a lot of firsts: “I love Christmas—and snow. I don’t like to be cold, but I like snow,” she says.

“It’s been fun just to see her excitement,” Kim says. “Just experiencing things for the first time with a freedom that she didn’t have in Afghanistan.”

The freedom is great, but it’s not easy for her to think of her family and friends back home. When her friends call, they’re often sad. “It’s kind of tough to live in Kabul,” she says. “They share their problems with me and it’s hard for me to hear. Because I experienced it, too. I didn’t have any confidence when I lived in Afghanistan, but when I came here, I could find my goals.”

She keeps busy to avoid missing her family, but it comes and goes in waves. Her aspirations keep her going, though. “I want to be a doctor,” she says. “And I also want to be an artist.”

In the meantime, she’ll keep trying new things and finding new favorites (like coffee). Next on her U.S. checklist is building a snowman, driving a car, and dating. All of which she’ll enjoy doing in White Bear. Kabul is a busy, loud city, “and I don’t like that. I love when everything is quiet,” she says. “I love the town.”