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Journey of survival, hard work, inspires him to inspire others

Grad with grit: Zabihullah “Zabi” Najafi

Wyoming — Zabihullah “Zabi” Najafi’s day begins at 6:20 a.m., when he wakes up at his Grand Rapids apartment. He eats breakfast before he drives to Wyoming High School, where he spends the day in AP English, precalculus, mythology, debate and ecology classes.

After the final bell rings at 2:15 p.m, he drives for 30 minutes to Ada, where he works the second shift on a packaging line at Amway until 11 p.m. Zabi arrives back home at 11:30 p.m. and eats dinner. Then it’s time to study and finish homework.

It’s a schedule that would make anyone feel exhausted, but to Zabi, it’s freedom. The refugee from Afghanistan knows how it feels to not be able to go to school or work, to have very little space to move, to have no voice and no choice.

At age 13, he spent seven months in a detention center in Indonesia, which was crowded with hundreds of refugees from Sudan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Pakistan and, like himself, Afghanistan. 

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi has learned to speak professionally through Business Professionals of America

He describes a small room crammed with eight other people, mostly adults. The stench of many humans living in close quarters hung in the air, he recalled. The plumbing was terrible, the water limited and the sole fan often broke in the unbearable summer heat.

Fast-forward to age 17, when Zabi was resettled in the U.S. “When I arrived in Michigan, I had the feeling I was finally free. I was finally able to work. I could go to work and school, and I didn’t have to be locked up all day. I was living in my dreams.”

Now 19, Zabi is a testament of the power of persistence and the drive that something better is possible. 

He graduates May 25, not only with a diploma but as a recipient of the Western Michigan University Medallion Scholarship, the university’s most prestigious merit-based scholarship for undergraduates. It is valued at $64,000 across four years ($16,000 per year). Each year, WMU selects a cohort of 20 Medallion Scholars.

“It was pretty huge,” he said of learning he had earned the scholarship. “I have this opportunity of going to get my degree. I will study political science, and the reason for that is because of everything I have gone through … I want to be a safeguard for people’s rights, refugees’ rights, human rights,” Zabi said.

His voice shakes with emotion and tears fill his eyes. “Nobody in my country can dream of going to the U.S. to a high school. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to graduate very soon now.”

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi credits business teacher Jonathan Bushen with helping him learn to speak confidently

From Afghanistan to Wyoming High School

 Zabi left Afghanistan in 2015 because of war, discrimination and violence. “My mom and my family told me I have to leave the country.” Part of his voyage was by sea, on a small boat loaded with migrants. “I traveled to India, to Malaysia, to the International Organization for Migration in Indonesia to register myself as an asylum seeker.”

But, newly registered with the IOM, he received no support and no direction, he said. Without friends or family and unable to speak the country’s language, he camped out near the migration office for more than two weeks until authorities moved him to the detention center.

“For the first three months we were locked in, and we couldn’t get out of our room,” he said, describing days of uncertainty in a situation he had never expected. He missed his family terribly. “I was not allowed to work, go to school or study; I was just there. After three months I was able to get out and go into the yard. We could play in the yard. There were security and people watching us.”

Because he was a minor, he was transferred to a shelter after seven months. Though the circumstances there were much better than at the detention center, he said, he still could only leave two hours a day and faced a strict curfew. “Everyone was a minor, (and) we didn’t have the freedom to go out and study or work.” 

He lived there for 18 months before receiving news that he would be resettled in the U.S.

It took another 18 months of waiting, two interviews with the U.S. Embassy, health checkups and immunizations before he was officially on his way. On June 12, 2019, he arrived in Michigan, resettled by Bethany Christian Services.

“I was one of the luckiest people to come, because most of the people I knew in the detention center are still there. I know families, people who have been there for nine years now. The most difficult part is you don’t know what is going to happen.”

According to the website Global Detention Project, Indonesia has dozens of immigration detention facilities, many of which have been denounced for their terrible conditions. Due to the pandemic, things are now even worse for detainees, Zabi said. He remains in contact with several friends still there. 

At one center, detainees protested conditions for 286 days in a row with no response, Zabi said. “There was no one to hear them. Their voices were never heard. No media is there to cover them.”

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi ran cross-country for the Wyoming Wolves

‘To be Understood is a Very Good Thing’

When Zabi began at Wyoming High School he was determined to make the most of his education after not being in school for years. He was able to speak a little English, which he learned from social media, YouTube and the internet. He also had two English classes at the shelter, which he helped teach.

He stayed after school every day that first semester, and his teachers were happy to help. “It was awesome and amazing to have this opportunity I couldn’t dream of,” he said. “I understood the value of it.”

Edith Trumbell, Zabi’s former Wyoming High School EL teacher, said he always worked outside of school while taking a full load of classes. “Even with his work schedule, he often stayed after school getting extra help from teachers or he would be the one helping other students,” she said. “He wanted to do his assignments correctly, and he also wanted to learn from them. It wasn’t just about getting good grades for Zabi; he has a love for learning and figuring out new ideas.”

Zabi remembers asking his math teacher every five minutes if he was completing equations right. “I’d show it to the teacher, ‘Is it right? How can I do it? What other ways can I solve this?’ He helped me. He was happy to do that.

“Later, I got an A in my math class, (and) I got an A the next semester.” 

English teacher Melanie Johnston Butts said Zabi’s motivation is remarkable. 

“Zabi is a person I have so much respect for,” she said. “He’s very open to ideas, and he’s a very deep thinker. He makes friends with just about anyone, and he does it all while working full time and living completely independently.

“He listens well, too, and thirsts for knowledge unlike any other student I’ve met. He never complains about how hard it is, even though I know he must be frustrated and overwhelmed all the time. He’s got a fierce love for his family back in Afghanistan, but also a strong connection to the people who love him here, and those who have helped him be successful. I am a better person for having met him.”

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi earned a 3.96 GPA at Wyoming High School

Standing on His Own

Soon after arriving in Michigan, Zabi started work at a Menard’s home improvement store. “Though I had the support of Bethany, I had to work to support my family back home. It is not safe for them to work…They do not have the resources we have in the U.S.,” he said, noting that $100 in American money equals about $8,000 in Afghanistan, enough to support one person for one month. His parents and four siblings still reside in Afghanistan.

He now works full time at Amway “to support my family and to stand on my own feet.”

Zabi now speaks English very well, and has a 3.96 GPA. He said he found the support he needed at Wyoming High School. Trumbell welcomed him into a classroom filled with other students who recently arrived in the U.S.  

“She is an amazing teacher… She helped me. I felt like I am home again, because you see all these people and all these teachers trying to help. And they understand you. To be understood is a very good thing.”

He also found Wyoming to be a place that modeled “being kind, compassionate and gracious.” 

“If you ask anyone in Wyoming High School a question they are willing to answer and they are willing to help… People are kind to each other. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Trumbell said Zabi excelled in class discussions and group work.

“He took on a leadership role in class without being asked and encouraged other students to take chances and share their voices in class … After one especially spirited class discussion, Zabi made the closing statement about the importance of resilience. One of his classmates announced loudly, ‘Zabi for president’ and the entire class clapped in support of this motion. After only a few months of studying in the United States, Zabi’s positive energy inspired a class of 25 English language learners to never give up.”

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi earned the Western Michigan University Medallion Scholarship

Inspiring Others

A highlight for Zabi has been competing in Business Professionals of America, advised by business teacher Jonathan Bushen. He credits Bushen with helping him develop confidence, and recently placed third in the category of prepared speech and was in a group that placed second in small business management in the regional competition. Zabi said he’s focused on public speaking to improve his skills.

Bushen said he has watched Zabi grow, develop and push himself to excellence in everything he does. 

“This scholarship opportunity will provide him the future he has worked so hard for over the years and give him the opportunity to give back to the people who are so very dear to his heart. He is a man of great integrity and poise, and I can’t wait to see what the next great thing he will accomplish. … We are all better off knowing and learning from him.”

Zabi said everything he is doing now is with others in mind. He hopes to eventually work as a United Nations ambassador or in law to help migrants.

“When I was (in the detention center), no one heard me. No matter how hard you shout or cry, no one cares about you. I want to be an advocate and a voice for people who do not have a voice.”

Zabihullah ‘Zabi’ Najafi dedicated himself to his education after arriving in the U.S.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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