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Teen Refugee Rebuilds Life in Virginia

This February, Murtaza marks his one year anniversary in the U.S. After surviving a capsized boat in the Indian Ocean
This February, Murtaza marks his one year anniversary in the U.S. After surviving a capsized boat in the Indian Ocean, he was put in an adult prison in Indonesia. He was finally awarded status as an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor and is working to complete his high school education in Central Virginia. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Richmond is one of 20 U.S. cities where young refugees separated from parents or guardians are resettled. They come from 18 different countries, including Somalia, China, Haiti and Honduras. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp brings you the story of one whose journey here was long and dangerous.

Learn More: A number of groups document missing and deceased migrants, including the Missing Migrants Project and Australian Border Deaths Database. Read more about the dangerous migrant route from Indonesia to Chrismas Island and follow the International Organization for Migration's storytelling project, I am a Migrant.


At James River High School, music teacher Bryan Harris leads students through a new chord progression. In the back row is a tall, dark haired 18-year-old who’s wanted to learn guitar since he was a kid.

Murtaza: My name is Murtaza, I’m from Afghanistan, Ghazni Province.

Murtaza arrived in Central Virginia in February 2015 and those first weeks figuring out a U.S. high school were challenging. But now he easily navigates the halls of James River, running up a staircase to get to his next class. His favorite subject is English.

Murtaza: It’s hard, but I like it.

After years of uncertainty, Murtaza’s adapting to this new life. He’s one of about 300 unaccompanied refugee minors who’ve come to Virginia since 2010.

Murtaza: Everything is completely different, the way we live in Asia, the way you live in the United States, is completely different.

An estimated 60 million people around the world are forcibly displaced, according to the UN Refugee Agency; thousands have lost their lives attempting to flee conflict and persecution. Since a photo of a Syrian toddler lying face down on a beach in Turkey captured global attention last Fall, hundreds more migrants have drowned. Murtaza almost did too.

Murtaza: The first time the water was very rough. They said [the boat trip is] canceled.

This was a couple years ago. Murtaza had already made it from Kabul to India then to Malaysia and finally Indonesia’s Java. There, a smuggler was arranging passage to Australia.

Murtaza: The next time they called was exactly three or four days after that. They called us again [and said], the ship is ready.

Murtaza boarded the small, wooden fishing vessel. With about 125 others, they set out on a well-traveled migrant route through Indonesia’s uninhabited islands.

Murtaza: They pick that track [on] purpose, because if something happens, you can get to land.

They weren’t on the water long when the boat broke. Luckily, land was in sight and most swam ashore.

Murtaza: We swam and in that situation, I think one person disappeared, I don’t know where he is, maybe he died.

They didn’t want to be put into a detention camp or prison, so they called the smuggler and he promised more boats.

Murtaza: They sent two boats because people said we don’t want to continue again.

Several dozen people decided the trip was too risky. Murtaza knew it was, too; he’d seen stories about other migrants drowning. But he decided to continue on.

Murtaza: This time the ocean was very calm and everything was good, but when we were twenty-four or twenty-five hours on the water, after that the water got rough again, it was worse than before.

Darkness surrounded them, the boat started rocking, and waves were crashing on board.

Murtaza: There’s no island, nothing that we could reach easily, so in the ocean, completely, alone.

And the boats captains were teenagers, Murtaza thinks 14 or 15 years old. That’s intentional; if the boat’s intercepted by authorities, juveniles aren’t prosecuted like adults.

Murtaza: I got life jacket and tire tubes for car. I got for safety. But that rough, those things don’t work. I mean the waves come as big as a building, a big building.

At this point, the rudder broke and the boat began spinning.

Murtaza: We were ready to die. In Muslim religion, we say something that when we are ready to die, we say we are ready to and we ask forgiveness from God and everything, so everybody was really ready to die.

In that moment, alone in the dark ocean, facing death, Murtaza said his mind was fixed on his fellow passengers.

Murtaza: It’s a lot, 100 people, you know that you are going to die. Children, the children crying, the women, old men, young, everybody crying. I was very upset, I was so upset about that, I didn’t think about myself.

As the passengers panicked, Murtaza found himself near the two teenaged captains who were arguing.

Murtaza: And they were screaming to each other and I wanted to see what’s going on... if the police come, it’s a good thing. They were screaming to each other but I couldn't see any light, police or navy or something.

He saw their satellite phone and grabbed it. Then, the captains jumped into the water.

Murtaza: They just disappeared. I don’t know where they are, if they are alive or die, I don’t know.

Murtaza wrapped the satellite phone in plastic and put it under this belt. Abandoned with a sinking boat, chaos was unfolding. Some passengers yelled that they should jump.

Murtaza: Most people jumped, most people jumped and some people stayed and we were eight people. It was the size of this wood.

Murtaza points to the table we’re sitting at for comparison, it’s about six by three feet; somehow, he and seven others managed to lock arms in a circle while hanging on to a piece of the boat.

Murtaza: With the boat completely destroyed, we could see nothing, nothing, no screaming, no whistle nothing.

The wind and waves must have pushed them some distance away, says Murtaza. The other passengers were gone.

Murtaza: So we could see nothing, hear nothing. Nothing. And we were really ready to die.

Murtaza took the satellite phone, he didn’t know how to use it but somehow he reached authorities.

Murtaza: And I called to international police or Australian police, I’m not sure. I think it was international police, I called them and they keep track of us.  After, I’m not sure, the time goes by so slow in that situation, I don’t know how long we waited but it seems like two, three hours, but it wasn’t, it was like 15 minutes something. They came and finally they rescued us, eight people from 100.

Eight people, out of 100. They survived, but new hardships were ahead. The rescuers transferred them to Indonesian authorities who brought them directly to a jail.

Murtaza: We expect that we go to a hospital, we get good service and good food after all those things, good bed for sleep, but they just put us in the prison again.

Murtaza was in that jail for a year. He says they got two hours outside each day. And no one came to interview them about what happened on the migrant boat. Finally, authorities reported to the United Nations that underage people were in the jail. Murtaza was moved to a shelter in Jakarta operated by Church World Service. He had the freedom to come and go during the day and volunteers from Italy and Germany led English classes. He developed close friendships with a few other teens who were also far from home. And, he waited. His paperwork to become an official refugee was processed fairly quickly, about five days. About eight months later, he got a call from the U.S. Embassy inviting him to an interview.

Murtaza: I was very happy, I didn’t expect that.

The interview was intense, says Murtaza. There was an interpreter, but he spoke Farsi, not Murtaza’s native Persian. The U.S. official asked him questions about terrorism and the Taliban. But a month later, he got another call saying his visa and plane ticket were ready. When he arrived at the airport in the U.S., foster parent Sharron Rose was waiting.

Sharron Rose: I’m Sharron Rose and I’m a native Virginian.

Rose has fostered 19 youth refugees.

Rose: My first foster son was from Somalia, the second was from North Korea, the next one was from China. 

Then members of the Somali youth’s family joined them. Also teens from Myanmar, Honduras and Guatemala. At one point, there were 10 people in her home. Rose encourages them to stay with her until they finish college.

Rose: Because the people who come to my house, the children that come here I want to see them go to school, be successful, to follow their dreams and to find out what they’re interested in, find out what their passions are and then try and show them the different opportunities that we have in this country for them to go the way they want to go. If they find a job that they are very comfortable in and that they love, they’ll never work a day in their life.

One of their biggest challenges, says Rose, is transitioning to secondary education in the US. Some youth have already completed years of high school but with limited English, they’re placed in lower grades.

Rose: The ones who’ve completed [some] high school, should not be forced to repeat the same things over again, that’s been a terrible injustice to them. The ones who haven’t, why of course starting at the beginning is fine, but there needs to be an adjustment because these children not like our children, these are young adults. They’ve been independent since they were very small, they’ve managed to survive and do things that a lot of adults have not been able to do and accomplished quite a bit so you can’t treat them as if they are American teenagers, you have to treat them like they’re an adult and respond to them in that way.

Mutaza uses himself as an example. At 17, he was initially put into freshmen classes. If he spent four more years in high school, he’d be aged out of the foster care system. While he’s fortunate to have a caring and supportive foster parent, not all unaccompanied refugee minors do.

Murtaza: We are not in the situation that American students are. If they miss one year they continue on one more year, because they have family here, the family support them. But we are on our own.

Foster mom Sharron Rose wants school systems to address these issues, letting refugees take proficiency exams in their native languages. She also suggests providing support for drivers ed so teens can get jobs and have some independence. One of her foster sons was also disqualified from the high school basketball team because he had turned 19, cutting off a vital way to socialize and fit in.

Back at James River High School, Murtaza’s doing everything he can to expedite graduation. He plans to add a class this summer and maybe go to night school. He’s still taking guitar and his English teacher is helping him write his life story. In just a short time, Murtaza’s made a big impact on a lot of people here.

Jeffrey Ellick: When I walk down these halls and things are just not going right, I think about Murtaza.

Jeffrey Ellick is Principal at James River. He’s also a veteran who served in the Afghan War.

Ellick: Those who know his story personally and certainly when they see him and his smile, his upbeat personality after going through what he has gone through and what he’s seen and you see a young person who just continues to persevere and continues to move forward and obviously there's challenges and difficulties that bought him to James River High School, but that’s not holding him back. He’s out there everyday, doing what he can do and what he should do to make a difference at our school.

Murtaza plans to eventually study IT at a university and Sharron Rose says he’ll have her support all the way. And someday, that life story Murtaza’s writing could include the long-awaited reunion with his family in a safe and permanent place they all can call home. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.