Guest Speaker Wraps Unit on Novel: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Mohammad Sahil, Education and Training Supervisor at Lutheran Family Services is a former Linguist of the United States Military. He served our country for 11 years interpreting and translating English, Pashtu, and Dari languages, including service at more than 5,000 court trials. He is also fluent in Urdu and Farsi.

On Friday, Oct. 15, Sahil spoke with Ms. Jolynn Oliver’s eighth-grade literature students at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic School who just concluded reading The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis. The award-winning novel follows a heroine who must overcome challenges and extraordinary circumstances during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Similar to the novel’s protagonist, Sahil’s life was impacted by Taliban rule. He was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan that his parents had fled to in the 1970s. “I was born in 1987 and lived there with my parents and siblings until 2001. I went to school in the refugee camp and it was there I started to learn English, often by spending time reading dictionaries.”

His family would return to Afghanistan in 2001, and Sahil would study English for a few more years before beginning his work in 2005 with the United States Military. In 2014, through a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) he moved to the United States.

“What was the largest culture shock you experienced upon moving to the United States?” an eighth-grader asked. “The transportation, the roads, the buildings! The infrastructure was so different. To be able to go into stores like Target or Walmart and see everything in one store!”  Sahil showed pictures of what a school looked like in Afghanistan: outdoors, no desks, few supplies, and encouraged students to recognize how lucky they were to learn in schools as we have in the United States.

He also discussed cultural differences and similarities between Afghanistan and the United States. From food, clothing, religion to the unwritten culture of Pashtunwali, he gave students a glimpse of the Afghanistan culture he knows, one he acknowledges is not often covered by the media.

Students had other questions. “Why Nebraska?!” and “What games did you play growing up?” He answered that he learned about Nebraska from a friend while serving in Iraq. He liked that it was spread out, like the villages he grew up in. As for his favorite game? “Cricket! It’s not so popular in the U.S., but around the world, it is very popular. In fact, Afghanistan is playing in the World Cup in Dubai soon!”

After the event, Ms. Oliver underscored the importance of her students reading novels such as The Breadwinner and bringing that literature to life through guest speakers like Mr. Sahil: “We are never going to achieve peace on this earth unless we take time to get to know people who are different than us. Taking time to walk in someone else’s shoes leads to understanding and puts a face on the issues. My hope is that our students will reach out to our new Afghan neighbors and welcome them to Omaha. I can only see positive things coming out of the encounters.”