Lyndonville senior is a grateful graduate
Fauzia Aajan was an orphan in Afghanistan
LYNDONVILLE – She arrived a decade ago – shy, malnourished and without a birthday.
Fauzia Aajan spent her first seven years in Afghanistan. When she was 1, her mother died. Her father died when Fauzia was 6.
She seldom attended school, staying with her aunt to help care for a brother suffering from hemophilia.
This Friday Fauzia will graduate from Lyndonville Central School, ranked number 7 in her class. She will attend college this fall at Daeman to major in early childhood education.
Fauzia, 17, may be one of the most grateful graduates to walk across the stage on Friday. If she had stayed in Afghanistan, she would have few opportunities, especially as a girl.
“I have a different perspective because I come from a country where girls don’t get an education,” Fauzia said during an interview at Lyndonville school last week. “In Afghanistan the women are housewives.”
She arrived in Orleans County in the summer of 2004 with her brother Sabir. They were participants in Project Life, a program at the World Life Institute in Waterport that gives orphans some respite in the countryside. Most of the children come from war-ravaged countries such as Chechnya, Bosnia and Afghanistan, as well as Sri Lanka after the devastating tsunami hit.
The kids stay with host families for the summer, learn some English, take art classes, get medical and dental checkups, and have lots of fun.
Idris Salih and his wife Stella Gresham hosted Fauzia and Sabir, who was 9 at the time. Sabir had to be led off the airplane in a wheelchair. He received immediate medical care for his hemophilia.
Nearly all 131 of the Project Life children have returned to their home countries. Fauzia and Sabir have stayed, with Salih and Gresham serving as their guardians.
The two siblings played soccer at Lyndonville, made many friends and inspired students and staff with their drive to excel in the classroom. Sabir, 20, just graduated from Genesee Community College. He played soccer for GCC and plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo.
“You never see ‘give up’ in either of these kids,” said Shane Price, a Lyndonville earth science teacher who worked with Sabir and Fauzia with a college prep program called AVID. “A lot of other kids might give up, but that’s not in their vocabulary.”
Fauzia struggled early with English. She has had to put in extra time to make sure she understands her school work.
“She has inspired a lot of kids to work harder,” Price said. “She sets the bar higher.”
Lyndonville’s principal, Dr. Aaron Slack, said Fauzia and Sabir broadened the students’ horizons, showing them there is a big world.
“They’ve brought a lot to the district, helping us to recognize and appreciate diversity,” Slack said.
Fauzia speaks about the conditions in Afghanistan in some of her classes, especially public speaking. She talks about the poverty of the country, the limited opportunities for girls and many children who are orphaned.
“She has done speeches about her heritage and her story,” said Elissa Smith, a Spanish and public speaking teacher, as well as coordinator of the college prep program. “She does not take for granted any of the opportunities. She has been a reminder that there are children in other places and what they would give for this education.”
After Fauzia delivers a speech, her classmates will have their hands up to ask questions about burqas that are worn by some Muslim women, some of the foods in Afghanistan, and other cultural differences.
Fauzia is happy to answer the questions. But she admits she doesn’t have all of the answers, including about herself. She doesn’t know her birthday. It is listed as Jan. 1 on her Passport and official documentation.
Her mother died when Fauzia was 1, and her father died five years later. Fauzia doesn’t know what caused their deaths. She remembers living with her aunt, who worked in a factory.
The factory owner was connected with Project Life. He heard about Sabir and Fauzia.
Idris Salih and Stella Gresham agreed to be a host family for the two siblings in 2004. Sabir’s untreated hemophilia was life threatening. He received needed medication that wasn’t available in Afghanistan.
Salih and Gresham welcomed the two siblings into their family, which includes their daughter Lyuba.
“She has inspired a lot of kids to work harder. She sets the bar higher.” – Lyndonville teacher Shane Price
Fauzia was in elementary school at Lyndonville in first and second grade. She attended school at Sandy Creek Academy in Holley for three years and was home-schooled a year before rejoining Lyndonville for eighth grade.
She admits she often felt overwhelmed with her school work. Not only was she playing catch up from attending very little school before age 7, but she was learning in a language that wasn’t her native tongue.
“The teachers have been very helpful,” she said. “They’re always there when I need something.”
She played all over the field in soccer – “wherever the coach decides to put me.” And she worked on stage crew in school musicals before joining the cast this year for “Into the Woods” and the senior play.
“It was kind of scary, but I like to push myself,” she said about being on stage.
She is a regular volunteer at the World Life Institute, teaching English and art to war orphans, and chaperoning trips.
She also volunteers at the WLI in other programs, working with the children of farmworkers in crafts, art and English activities.
Fauzia’s goal is to become an elementary school teacher.
Salih doesn’t doubt she will achieve that goal and that her brother will become an engineer.
“Fauzia and her brother have both grown tremendously,” he said. “They’re good kids, and they both have a drive to succeed. They have such a positive outlook.”