PHOENIX-According to the Gregorian calendar, Abdullah Ayazi was born on Jan. 1. Many refugees have a January 1st birthday due to them not knowing the day they were born, but not Ayazi. When converting his birthday from the traditional calendar of Afghanistan to the Gregorian calendar --the calendar most widely used in the West -- it was found that he was born on the first day of the first month.
A new year. A time of resolutions and new beginnings.
New beginnings like the one Ayazi has been experiencing since arriving in America two and a half years ago.
However, his birthday is arguably the least important fact about Ayazi that you should know.
He knows five different languages (and is working on Spanish), has lived in five different countries, is the president of his JAG chapter (Jobs for Arizona’s Graduates), is a talented soccer player and student at Central High School, and lives alone. But these responsibilities are minuscule in comparison to what he faced to get here.
When Ayazi speaks he does not speak loudly. He does not have to. He does not speak quickly. He speaks at a comfortable pace. This is not the way that he garners your attention. He speaks with a purpose, no words are wasted. He is very formal, always making sure to give proper greetings to those he encounters.
In many ways he is similar to your average American kid. He embraces his education to the fullest extent, his favorite actor is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and his favorite soccer team is FC Barcelona.
There’s a phrase that he repeats every now and then.
“It’s my time now.” Ayazi says.
We’ll get to that.
Man of the House
Ayazi was born and raised in the Jaghori district of Central Afghanistan. He is one of four siblings, two boys and two girls. His father transported construction materials throughout the country to help villages and towns repair and build new buildings.
However there were people that were less than keen on the business Ayazi’s father was conducting and thought he was working for the government undercover.
When Ayazi was about 14 his father feared for his safety so his father left Afghanistan for Pakistan and eventually made it to Indonesia where he laid low for about nine months.
Eventually his father returned to Afghanistan and when he did he continued the transportation of materials that made him leave in the first place.
“The second time what happened they…”Ayazi said.
Ayazi pauses for a couple seconds and momentarily looks down at the desk in front of him, then continues.
“They took him, and still I don’t know what’s going on,” Ayazi said.
He was informed by a co-worker of his father that his fathers truck was found on the road in flames but there was no sign of his father.
“Since then, I don’t know. I don’t know where my father is.” Ayazi said.
This left Ayazi as the oldest male in his family, therefore the de-facto man of the house. Ayazi’s uncle-in-law told Ayazi that he has to fear for his safety now, as it is normal for whoever went after his dad to go after all the men in the family next, no matter the age.
Sometime after his father’s death people with guns came to Ayazi’s town. When they arrived Ayazi was outside of his family’s house. He saw the people with guns pointing in the direction of his house so he started running immediately. He didn’t know where he was running to but he knew he needed to get away.
Long Road Ahead
At around 4 a.m. one morning a taxi was hired to take Ayazi from his Uncle’s place where his family was staying, to the Afghani capital of Kabul. Within a month of his father’s disappearance Ayazi had left his hometown for the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. There Ayazi stayed until his papers were processed and then off he went to India.
Ayazi flew to India where he stayed for a short period of time. There he had to shop and cook for himself but was discouraged from going out by the people arranging his transportation. He also lost his phone in India which contained all of his contacts. That meant he had no form of communication with his family anymore, and this was just the beginning.
Next was a flight to Thailand, and then a flight to Malaysia.
Ayazi was planning on getting from Malaysia to Indonesia by boat but was almost apprehended while doing so.
As the youngest person on the boat to Indonesia he was at the bottom of the totem pole, which meant he was last to board the boat. As he was about to board the Malaysian police started running toward the boat, it pushed off without him and the people on the boat told Ayazi to swim to them. Ayazi didn’t know how to swim, but he managed to just barely make it to the boat without drowning and off it went to Indonesia.
When Ayazi arrived in Indonesia he didn’t know anybody. He didn’t know the language but he was lucky enough to meet someone from his country. This person told him to go to UNHCR(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to get an interpreter so he could learn Indonesian.
For two months, Ayazi was detained by Indonesian Immigration where he was not treated well. He was beaten, his belongings were taken from him, he was forced to do pushups and run on hot concrete with no clothes and no shoes. Occasionally he was forced to roll on the hot concrete and many nights he went to sleep hungry, thirsty and in physical and emotional pain.
“There are two choices, either I learn their language and talk to somebody that could help me, or just kill myself.” Ayazi takes a deep breath. “It was really difficult.”
Eventually he befriended an employee at the immigration camp who brought him a book that would become critical to his freedom. It was a simple book, an Indonesian to English dictionary. From there, the camp employee helped teach him Indonesian as well as the English alphabet. Ayazi was transferred from an Indonesian Immigration camp to a UN Refugee camp but his environment didn’t get much better.
Ayazi again was the youngest and the smallest person at the refugee camp, which led to him being noticed by the head of the camp who wanted to help Ayazi after hearing his story. A few days later, representatives from the UNHCR came to interview Abdullah where they granted him official refugee status from the United Nations and gave him his refugee card.
After being granted his refugee card, Ayazi bided his time getting better at Indonesian and English while hoping for the day he got to leave camp. That day came on May 1, 2015, the day that Ayazi finally set foot in America. Two years, four countries, and four languages later.
“It’s My Time Now”
When Ayazi settled in Phoenix, he knew one of his first priorities was to get into contact with his family. He struggled with focus in class at Alhambra High School because he couldn’t get his mind off the safety of his family.
“Before I found out about my family I had an F in a class. I was like ‘what is an F?’ I didn’t know. Then my counselor explained the system and I was like ‘oh, that’s not good,’” Ayazi said.
Finally, about a year after arriving in America, Ayazi contacted the Red Cross who gave him the contact information of a family friend who put him in contact with his family.
“When I talked to them they were crying because they didn’t know if I was alive. They gave me hope,” Ayazi said.
Three years after leaving home, Ayazi finally reestablished contact with his mother and siblings who had since moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan due to concerns for their safety.
Nowadays Ayazi is known by his teachers at Central High School as “one of the hardest working kids we have.” said Erica Earl, the English Second Language instructional leader.
“ELL students in general have a harder work ethic," Said Paul Bonnett, Central High School track and cross-country coach. "They work hard whether they see it as their opportunity to do things or not.”
Central High School is one of a few high schools in the Phoenix Union School District with a substantial international student population. There are many ESL students who play football, tennis, soccer and wrestling to name a few.
“I love our soccer team because it’s so international," said Gilbert Jones, athletic director at Central. "That hinders us a little bit because we have to figure out all our styles, it usually takes a couple games to get going but there’s a lot of talent out there.”
Ayazi can’t play soccer representing Central like he did last year because of the fact that he is over 18, but that doesn’t stop him from kicking the ball around the park with friends.
The first time I interviewed Ayazi wasn’t about his past, it was about the role sport had in learning English. The last thing he told me before the interview ended was:
“It’s a good experience, being in a high school. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to go to school before but it’s my time now.” Ayazi said.
Ayazi's humility and gratitude towards things that others take for granted is something to behold, and something that your average 14-19 year olds don't generally have.
“I had a really tough life…The way I got here. And right now I’m choosing so many things, and it’s kind of interesting but I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve suffered a lot. So I think it’s my time to help my family and also help myself.” Ayazi said.
There are many lessons to take away from Ayazi but one has stuck out above all others. Perseverance.
There was no easy way to do anything that he has accomplished. He has been through more hardship than the average American does in their lifetime, and he is only 19. He has considered giving up in the past but he won’t even think about it today.
After all, it’s his time now.