Zee Amini

When Zee Amini arrived in Kalamazoo from Afghanistan at age 17, she didn’t know any English, but four years later she graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School with honors. 

Much of that had to do with self-determination, but another part of it was the support that she received as an English language learner. English as a Second Language classes, she said, helped her learn her new language and develop the skills she needed to succeed in other classes. 

At 17, she was by far the oldest student in most of her freshman classes at Kalamazoo Central. 

“When I was not in my ESL classes, I was there physically, but I don’t think I was learning anything. When you don’t know the language everyone is speaking, the struggle was real,” said Amini, 34. She says her first semester, she failed the classes taught in English.

 “If you don’t understand English, you need a slower pace. The ESL teacher was literally helping kids with the alphabet, basic shapes and names for things. It’s nice to have that level of learning available. The ESL teacher, Mr. (Ryan) LaBudda, was able to recognize how to express concepts.” 

Her family landed in Kalamazoo totally by chance, she said. Her father simply chose Kalamazoo from a list of possible resettlement sites. “We could have gone anywhere.” 

While some families worry about losing their native language once a student begins speaking English, Amini said that was never a concern for her because she was older than the average student. Today, she still speaks Dari, a variation of Farsi, with her relatives. 

As she moved through KC, she learned that she could only stay in public school up to age 21 — then she’d have to switch to adult education or earn her GED, which might require more time. She did not want to do that, so she became laser-focused on taking — and passing — the core requirements for graduation. 

Amini qualified for 65 percent of The Kalamazoo Promise when she graduated. “That was awesome, and I am so grateful,” she said. 

She went to Western Michigan University, but she said the language challenges remained.

“I found you can learn the language, and speak it, and read it, but when it comes to an academic level there can still be language barriers. And, there is no dictionary that covers all of our slang.” 

Still, she persevered and went on to earn a degree in biomedical science and chemistry. She works for Stryker Corporation in new product development and regulatory affairs. 

Part of what she loves about her job is working for a global company with a diverse workforce. “It’s cool to see different people exist and you don’t feel alone or like the odd one out.” 

As Southwest Michigan prepares to welcome refugee families from Afghanistan over the coming weeks, she urges the community to be patient and help the families with the culture shock they are sure to feel. 

“The culture and language barriers are the obstacles that could hold people back. When you don’t understand the culture, you’re at a loss,” she said. “People can help them get acclimated to our community and culture, and also to make them feel comfortable culturally by helping them get involved in activities and help them understand what they can do to reach their goals.”