Visa troubles snag teachers from S. Africa

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 18, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — When Amina and Faghri Taffa moved from South Africa to Salisbury in 2002 they never expected to stay longer than three years.
The couple came to the country as part of a teaching exchange program and planned to leave when their contract expired.
But that plan quickly unraveled.
“We didn’t plan on getting so close to the community,” Amina said. “We immediately bonded with them.”
The community she speaks of is North Rowan.
Amina teaches math at North Rowan Middle, while Faghri has substituted exclusively at the school. Their daughter, Chenoa, also attends North Rowan schools.
“It isn’t like a job,” Faghri said. “It’s like being with family all the time.”
The pair also lend a hand outside the classroom.
Amina coaches the girls soccer teams at both North Middle and North High. Faghri coaches boys and girls tennis and boys soccer at North Middle.
After their three-year contract expired they got an extension to stay another year. Then another. Then another.
But after five years, those extensions have run out and the family could be forced to leave the country when their visas expire on June 30.
Although the family knew this day could come and they were prepared to leave, their North Rowan community is doing their part to keep them here.
“When they found out we were leaving they said, ‘We want you to stay. How can we help? Tell us what you need,’ ” Faghri said.
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Betty Sedberry and her daughter, Meredith Eller, have written letters to U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-12th, to ask for support to speed up the process to extend the visas.
“It’s just sort of a grassroots effort of everybody coming together to do everything they can,” Sedberry said. “These people are so important to the community and to lose them would just be tragic.”
Eller’s daughter, Casey, had Amina for math and learned to play tennis from Faghri.
“If every school could be as fortunate to have educators and mentors like the Taffas it would just be a phenomenal place,” Eller said.
Faghri, along with Sedberry and about 10 other parents, met with a representative from Watt’s office last week.
“We are going to reach out to the folks from the embassy on their behalf,” Keith Kelly, Watt’s communication director, said.
The Taffas say if they can get their visas renewed they are more than willing to stay in the town that they now consider home.
“We do not want to stay here if our papers are not in order,” Amina said. “I wouldn’t want to. When our visa ends, we will leave.”
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The pair wants to stay in Salisbury because of the connections they’ve made.
“We are some of the most fortunate people,” Amina said. “How many people wake up in the morning and say I want to be here, I love to be here.”
They also want what’s best for their 14-year-old daughter.
Chenoa said after living here for eight years, America is her home.
“It would be hard for me to go back because I’ve adjusted to the lifestyle here,” she said. “I’ve lived here most of my life. All of my friends are here.”
If the family goes back to South Africa, they worry about violence Chenoa could face.
And Chenoa said she is afraid she’ll miss out on enrichment opportunities like being part of the marching band.
Amina said South Africa does not offer music education like schools do here and Chenoa wouldn’t have the chance to grow her saxophone skills.
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The community and the Taffas are still holding out hope for a happy ending.
“We’re just hoping that we won’t lose one of our best couples,” Eller said. “Their entire emphasis is on the wellbeing of our students as people. They teach kids that you need to give back, that you need to be involved.
“If you could have the definition of a great role model in the school system it would be them.”
Otis Cunningham, a North Middle parent and assistant tennis coach, said his family has been praying that the Taffas can stay here.
Cunningham said he was “heartbroken” when he learned the Taffas might leaving.
“They are pillars in the community, really just model citizens,” he said.
The Taffas said they are anxious to see if they will be able to stay, but they know things will work out either way.
“What’s meant to be will be,” Amina said.
The family said the support they’ve received throughout the past couple of weeks has been tremendous.
“We didn’t expect parents and students alike to really go out of their way for us the way they have … It just blows my mind,” Amina said. “The people of Salisbury took us in.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.