The whooping cheers of hundreds of high schoolers filled W.B. Jones Auditorium as Nasrat Amarkhail stepped to the microphone.
Looking out from the stage at the Somerset High School student body, it was his chance to say whatever was in his heart. Instead of saying it, however, Amarkhail showed it.
At a loss for words, the young man known simply as “Nas” to his friends, stood in silence for a frozen moment, looking down and choking back the emotion that was on the verge of overwhelming him. His inability to find words spoke volumes: Amarkhail was experiencing true, unfiltered joy.
“Since the day I’ve been here, I’ve been treated like a king,” were the words he finally mustered, his parents looking on proudly from behind him. “That’s all I can say.”
And after Amarkhail thanked his friends and teachers for being with him through all his “ups and downs,” the Somerset High band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the students again erupted in celebration. It was all in honor of one very special life change for one of their number:
Amarkhail had become an American citizen.
Born in Afghanistan, Amarkhail and his family lived for most of his young life in the capital city of Kabul, a commonly-heard name on American cable news networks over the last decade.
As a seventh-grader, however, Amarkhail and his family had an opportunity to move to the United States — and they took it. For years, Amarkhail attended the Somerset Independent School System — first at Meece Middle, then SHS — as an Afghan living on American soil.
Recently, however, Amarkhail decided to change that.
“I wanted to become a U.S. citizen because it’s very safe for me — I feel safe here,” said Amarkhail, now a high school senior. “This is where I want to stay.”
Amarkhail knew it was a “big responsibility” and would require a lot of work. He said that the first steps included a background check and taking his fingerprints. There was also, of course, the matter of an interview — a step which Amarkhail and his family apparently passed with flying colors.
“We had heard that he was close to finishing (the naturalization process) last week, and that he was able to go to Lexington and actually find a judge,” said Somerset High School Principal Wes Cornett of Amarkhail. “One of the immigration district judges had said, ‘Yes, come on in.’ They (the Amarkhail family) had a great conversation.”
Cornett added that the judge was “very proud” of Amarkhail, which led to a prompt completion. Of course, Amarkhail still had to take the test showing just how much he knows about this new homeland of his — a test which 38 percent of native-born U.S. citizens would fail, according to a 2011 survey by Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
The test covered U.S. history, “past and present,” as Amarkhail put it. An eloquent way to describe the subject matter, considering that mastering the English language was one of his biggest hurdles upon arriving in the country.
“The first year, I felt like I was kind of alone because I didn’t know any of the language at all,” said Amarkhail, who still speaks with a distinct accent representative of his country of origin. “I had to start from zero and move on. Through the seventh-grade (his first year here), I didn’t know any English at all.”
Amarkhail said it took him about eight months to get it down, and got by with a lot of help from his friends — and his school.
“The teachers that helped me out, they tried their best to find a good way for me to learn whatever I could from the class,” said Amarkhail. “I communicated with all my friends, no matter if it was wrong or right. Sometimes it would make no sense at all.”
One language in which Amarkhail was plenty fluent however was that of sport — soccer, to be specific. It just so happened that his coach at Somerset turned out to be an English teacher, Brian Blankenship. When standing on stage at Wednesday’s ceremony in the W.B. Jones Auditorium, searching the words to thank all those who had helped him along his way, Amarkhail took special care to show appreciation for the attention paid to him by Blankenship.
That kind of nurturing is something the “people of Somerset do,” according to Cornett.
“It’s a family atmosphere,” he said. “They were very good to him. Most of the students were, and the teachers were. I know that he has spent a lot of time with some teachers, such as Mr. Blankenship.”
It’s the kind of welcome the Amarkhails were promised when they first touched down in the United States years ago. Initially the family — a “big” one, as Nas put it, since he’s one of three boys along with three girl children — was headed to California.
But when they got to the airport in Atlanta, said Amarkhail, his father Obaidullah, who now works for the U.S. Army, got an email from a friend from here in Somerset, Zabihullah Khyber, who passed along a key piece of advice.
“His friend told him that if you want to live in a place where you can take care of your children, get good education, be around good people, you should definitely come to Somerset,” said Nas Amarkhail, “so that’s one reason why I came here.”
It’s a big difference from what he knew before in Afghanistan — “Much different,” said Amarkhail. “Where I used to (live), just to go to school it was dangerous, because of the wars going on and everything.
“Most people (there) try to get as much education as they can,” he added. However, “most of them have to support their family, and after high school, they can’t go further.”
No such danger at Somerset High School, where Cornett found out about his student’s quest for citizenship and thought that something ought to be done to honor the accomplishment. After discussing the matter with other teachers, a plot to hold a secret school assembly last Wednesday was cooked up — secret from Amarkhail, that is.
“I did not know anything about it,” said Amarkhail. “Everybody was saying, ‘We have a ceremony today.’ I started asking everybody (about it) and they weren’t talking to me. Usually they announce it and say we have a ceremony because of (a particular reason).
“When I came in, I still didn’t know,” he continued, “until I saw my parents coming out.”
Cornett offered not only words of congratulations but the gift of a brand-new American flag — “What greater gift for a new American citizen?” as the principal put it. He then offered Amarkhail his turn at the mic, and that’s when the young man found himself quite literally speechless.
“There were a lot of things that I wanted to say about the people I’ve been around for the last five or six years,” said Amarkhail. “Words cannot describe what they’ve done for me. I just wanted to thank every single one of them. I wanted to thank my family for bringing me here, because without my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t be at this school, standing here.”
A smart and studious student by Cornett’s word, Amarkhail wants to be in the medical profession, and would like to attend the University of Kentucky before going to med school. Cornett has little doubt that this American dream will come true— right here in Amarkhail’s new red, white and blue homeland.
“He’s just a fine young man from a really good family,” said Cornett. “He wants to be a doctor, and he wants to be an American citizen, and will probably achieve both of those goals very easily.
“If students ever wonder why we do what we do, this is why,” he added. “We invest in young people’s lives. That’s what we did as well with many other students, and I think it’s paid off.”