Retired Savannah Teacher Helps Afghan Refugees

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — On a warm May day, Sissy Hoffman steps out of the car with a bag of goodies.

In one hand, she holds a basket with peanuts, and in the other, she has mulberries. But before she can gain her composure, a toddler runs out of home yelling Bibi, or grandma.

She and the young child embrace.

Sharing a smile, Hoffman says this is the best job she has had since retirement. “When I retire, I want to work with refugee children,” she said. “This is really the crowning glory.”

Hoffman, 70, has spent nine months helping an Afghan refugee family adjust to life in America through the Inspiritus First Families Mentorship program. The program includes teaching English, introducing them to American customs and necessities and providing instruction on how to accomplish daily tasks such as crafting an email.

Inspiritus is a non-profit agency that provides individuals whose lives have been disrupted with resources and basic needs to help re-acclimate them to their community. The agency also provides refugees with resettlement efforts such as securing housing, employment and legal services through their refugee services.

Born and raised in Savannah, Hoffman taught for 40 years before retiring in 2018. Previously, she taught in California and worked with special education students and immigrants.

“I always knew I wanted to become a teacher ever since the second grade when they let us go and read to the younger children,” she said. “I enjoyed that.”

In 1996, she was given only six months to live after a mesothelioma diagnosis but is still here and continues to serve her community.

Hoffman said three events in her life inspired her to serve: the Holocaust, World War II and the Vietnam War. She said her family members escaped Europe during the Holocaust.

“They were refugees, and many of those perished in the Holocaust. Those who survived were helped by individuals unknown to them.”

During her second year of teaching in 1971, she remembers the last group of Vietnamese refugees coming over to America to escape the war. That sparked her interest in helping new Americans, so she taught them English as a second language. When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in the fall of 2021, she felt the desire to serve again.

“Working with people who are in need for whatever particular reason was the way of life and how I was raised.”

Hoffman is a mentor to a family of five children: three boys and two girls. She said the family came to the Savannah area in September.

Greeting each other with hugs, that is how Hoffman and her family show love. Her grandchildren live in Washington D.C., while the children’s grandparents are in Afghanistan.

“I call them my grandchildren and they call me grandma. They call me Bibi (which translates to lady of rank) and they would hug me around my legs,” she said.

She said their father works as an interpreter for the United States. The father speaks English, Pashto and Dari. Two of the older children also speak some English.

“This is my the first experience (working with an Afghan family),” Hoffman said. “The kids are so cute, and the mother wearing a customary headscarf hugged me… she cried… to think about what she has gone through (leaving the Kabul airport).”

One Afghan teenager, Amin, calls Hoffman grandma because of the love she has shared while helping his family adjust to American culture. Amin remembers going to a local Kroger for the first time to buy groceries and applying for a job. When the teen was having a hard time in school, Hoffman helped him with his grades.

“She has helped us very much, she is kind and honest,” he said. “She helped us with everything, and we appreciate her.”

In March, Amin and his siblings participated in their first St. Patrick’s Day festival in Savannah. He has also enjoyed learning Savannah street names and visited local museums as way to learn about American culture.

“We are Americans now,” he said.

Marwa and Farahnaz said their favorite activity was shopping for birthday supplies such as cakes, decorations and dresses. Both girls also enjoyed going to Lake Mayer to feed the ducks while having pizza and a Pepsi.

A few months ago, Hoffman, along with Coastal Middle School staff and students, collected 300 preschool age and early reader books for Afghan refugees. She said the goal is teaching literacy skills.

“Wherever you are, that is your library,” she said.

Now she has been helping the kids get signed-up for Savannah-Chatham schools’ EMBRACESummer program, which is designed to help students catch up on subjects they may have missed over the course of the school year. Recently, Farahnaz was accepted into a marine science summer program at Georgia Southern University.

She is excited to go on the boat for the first time, but Hoffman wants to join in for the fun. She will continue to help the children and other members of the family adjust with daily outings and their English skills.

“Look what I am doing, it exceeds anything I could have done in the classroom,” she said.

She said working with English language learners was a dream job before she was forced to retire, and the last few months have been worthwhile.

“So the surprise of it all is that I did get to have my dream retirement job after all,” she said. “I get to work with refugees, but not how I originally had planned.”