Courtesy of Elena's Light

Fereshteh Ganjavi still remembers her first day as a teacher. She was 12 years old, in the basement of a small neighborhood building, facing a group of around six other Afghan refugee students, many her age and some even older. Her whole body was shaking, but she remembered her father’s advice: sit confidently, have a pen and paper, ask their names and tell them that you’re the teacher. 

She remembered one of the students, a 17-year-old boy, started teasing her and asked, “You’re going to be the teacher? You’re a student just like us.” 

“It doesn’t matter how old I am,” Ganjavi remembers replying. “It’s important that I know how to read and write. I can help you.”

Since that day, Ganjavi has spent much of her life empowering others through educational opportunities. 

Ganjavi is now the founder of Elena’s Light, a local organization that provides education programming specifically tailored to refugee women and children — including at-home ESL classes, health education and safe spaces for refugee youth. The organization is shaped by Ganjavi’s own experience as a refugee.

“I was born as a refugee, I will live as a refugee and I will die as a refugee,” Ganjavi said. 

Ganjavi’s parents fled from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and traveled to a second country as refugees, where Ganjavi and her sister were born. Ganjavi said she grew up with a “thirst for education.” Her father taught her how to read and write when she was four years old. As she got older, she wanted to go to school like the children around her. 

But much to Ganjavi’s disappointment, she soon realized that refugees in the second country were not officially allowed to go to school. She recalled not eating or drinking for two days as she cried, pleading with her parents to let her go to school in some way. 

Her father registered her for an adult school for elderly women where one of their neighbors was teaching. At seven years old, Ganjavi would go to class and sit with the grandmothers to learn to read and write. 

“I was able to read and write already,” Ganjavi said. “But still I loved to go somewhere and learn.” 

After two weeks, however, Ganjavi realized that she wasn’t learning anything new and wanted to go to a real school. That was when the neighborhood teacher gave her father an idea: to make a fake ID for Ganjavi. She recalled the experience being “very scary” and mentioned how it was not an easy process renewing the ID every year. But the ID allowed Ganjavi to go to school from grades one through 12 and also attend university. 

Her early experience as a teacher came out of her father’s desire to help the other refugee children in the neighborhood receive an education. When she was in fourth grade, her father told her that he couldn’t make a fake ID for everyone but felt bad that other children could not go to school. He told Ganjavi that he wanted to open an informal school for the children. 

“I said that’s a good idea but who is going to teach these kids?” Ganjavi said. “My father said, ‘definitely you.’”

Thus began Ganjavi’s experience as a young teacher, showing children in her neighborhood how to read and write. By the time Ganjavi came to the U.S. in 2011, the informal school had about 300 students divided into five classes in the small basement. Ganjavi said she still is in contact with many of her students, and that many of them ultimately attended universities in European countries. 

When Ganjavi came to the U.S., she said she was surprised that there were still barriers to education for Afghan refugees, especially Afghan women, despite the number of free public services. She said that many Afghan women come to the United States with lots of children and also face transportation issues. Ganjavi also mentioned certain cultural issues such as Afghan women not being comfortable attending classes with male students. 

Ganjavi had the idea to start Elena’s Light, which provides at-home, one-on-one classes to women and children. They started near the end of 2017 with three Afghan refugee women and three student volunteers from Yale. 

As the organization developed, the number of students and volunteers continued to grow. But when COVID-19 hit, it presented a host of difficulties as many volunteers dropped out and not many students continued online. Out of the 20 students attending classes before the pandemic, only eight had continued.

However, the transition to online learning slowly got smoother and since then, Ganjavi said they have had around 20 students and 20 volunteers every semester.  

Another aspect of Elena’s Light that has grown since COVID-19 is its focus on health education. Rachel Schaffer, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, is the director of health and wellness at Elena’s Light. One of the many programs Schaffer has worked on is designing health education classes for the students in partnership with the Yale Health Education and Literacy for Asylees and Refugees. Schaffer has also helped work on Elena’s Light’s vaccination events in partnership with the Yale Community healthcare van. She said around 90 people received vaccines at the first event, many being younger women. 

“We have to start where the needs are,” Schaffer said. “So we started with the education classes, health classes and vaccination classes. Once we have those needs met, we can expand the programming to even more. We can do the social, the emotional, the story-telling.” 

Sadi Ghimire ’23 also works at Elena’s Light as an advocacy intern. She immigrated with her parents in 2010 from Nepal, and that experience has sparked her interest in becoming an immigration lawyer and working on immigrant and refugee issues.

In the fall semester, she took ‘Comparative Ethnic Studies’ at Yale; an option for the final project was to do 25 hours of volunteering at a local organization. Her professor connected her with Elena’s Light, where Ghimire later ended up obtaining an internship. 

Ghimire said much of the legal advocacy work she has been doing lately has been in response to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. A recent project Ghimire has worked on is a “Know your Rights” workshop on humanitarian parole for Afghan refugees. She said many who attended were Afghan families in the United States who wanted to help their relatives back in Afghanistan come to the U.S.

Ghimire said that working at Elena’s Light has been a very rewarding experience for her and she has been inspired by Ganjavi’s dedication to her work. 

“I don’t think I will ever have a boss like her,” said Ghimire. “She’s always wanting to do more to help others and is always wanting to learn more. She really cares about the community, the New Haven community in general and especially the refugees.” 

According to the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, around 350 Afghan evacuees have arrived in New Haven.

Sai Rayala reports on Yale-New Haven relations. She previously covered climate and environmental efforts in New Haven. Originally from Powell, Ohio, she is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College majoring in History.