High Bluff Academy makes a home for refugee students from Afghanistan, Ukraine

Michael and Jill Duoto, founders of High Bluff Academy, with Afghan students Mohammad and Aqila Mohammadi.
(Nicolas Duoto)

After the Taliban came and his family was forced to flee Kabul, Mohammad Mohammadi couldn’t sleep. In the stifling, 115-degree heat in his strange new country of Pakistan, he climbed up to the roof of the seven-story hostel he was staying in to search online for scholarships and schools. The 18-year-old was looking for a way out, a chance for a new life.

Somehow, he found a small school housed in an office building in Rancho Santa Fe that accepted international students.

This school year, High Bluff Academy has become a welcome refuge for Mohammad, as well as his sister Aqila from Afghanistan. The school has also provided a scholarship and housing to Eva Cherkasova, a 16-year-old student from Ukraine who had to relocate to Poland when Russia’s war broke out.

The students all found the school’s website through a fateful Google search—they didn’t know anyone in California, let alone in San Diego.

“It seemed like a miracle that they found us,” said Jill Duoto, who founded the school with her husband Michael in Carmel Valley 20 years ago.

The private High Bluff Academy is a fully accredited college prep high school of 60 students, now located in the Palma de la Reina center near the Morgan Run Club & Resort. With High Bluff, the husband and wife team of longtime educators brought their experience working in international schools for 14 years overseas, in places such as Singapore, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Japan. The school is authorized under federal law to enroll non-immigrant alien students on F-1 student visas.

The application from Mohammad came out of the blue in March 2022 and Duoto was moved by his family’s story—she wanted to learn more about them and do whatever she could to help. She started communicating with him on WhatsApp nearly every day.

After Kabul fell in the fall of 2021, Mohammad and his family went to the Kabul International Airport every day for a week, trying to get out of the country. The youngest of his five siblings was only two years old at the time.

“We kept trying but we could not succeed to enter the airport,” Mohammad said, adding that the conditions at the airport were chaotic and extremely unsafe. “We watched the Taliban shoot someone. People got injured. When we got home we were silent and shocked. I talked to myself: ‘I should find a way to at least help my family’. Many nights I didn’t sleep, I just searched to find a scholarship.”

Duoto was one of the few to respond positively to his inquiries: “With Mohammad I got a feeling that he was an exceptional person.” When she found out about his sister Aqila, 16, she wanted to help both of them come to school in America.

Mohammad and Aqila did not have passports at first and they had to go to the ministry every day for almost eight months, through rain and snow, until the Taliban issued their passports. They were often hit with whips and screamed at while they waited in line.

Once they got the passports, they had to apply for a Pakistan visa—they finally got a 30-day tourist visa and headed to Islamabad, Pakistan just the two teenagers on their own.

Once in Islamabad, the U.S. Embassy denied their student visas and Duoto worried that it might be the end of the story, “I really didn’t think they were going to come.” As they could not go back home, she sent them money to live on for another four months as they tried again. In the meantime,throughout the summer, the two were able to take High Bluff courses online.

Miraculously their next attempt to get their F-1 visas was granted and the two teenagers who had never been on a plane before embarked on about a 25-hour journey to San Diego, from Islamabad to Qatar to San Francisco and finally San Diego: “The most interesting part was the first time I saw an electronic, moving sidewalk,” Mohammad marveled.

The two siblings are now living in Carmel Valley with the Duotos. The Duotos are also supporting the rest of the Mohammadi family who are now safely out of Kabul and living in Islamabad.

The day the siblings arrived in San Diego on Sept. 30, a suicide bomber blew up an education center near their home in Kabul where girls were taking a practice exam for the university entrance exam. At least 46 girls were killed and over 100 were injured. It wasn’t lost on them that one of those girls targeted by the bomber could have been Aqila.

“Being a girl in Afghanistan is so hard,” said Aqila. “I feel very fortunate for my family who supports me a lot, my dad supported me equally.”

“The first feeling I had when I came here was freedom,” she said. “I’m free.”

There’s no one telling her to cover her face, no one telling her she can’t go to school. When she was in Afghanistan, Aqila said she didn’t talk a lot—now she bubbles over talking about her birthday, visiting the San Diego Zoo and trying new things: “Now Jill can help me to have a future,” she said. “I’m just so happy.”

Mohammad shared a story he learned of a 17-year-old girl named Fatemah Amiri who lost an eye in that Kabul school explosion but then went on to pass her entrance exam with high marks the following month. While they are happy here, they have not forgotten where they come from and tears slip from Aqila’s eyes when he tells the story.

“We always think of Afghanistan and the people there,” he said.

When speaking about war, a shared sadness passes over all three refugee students’ faces.

Eva was in Kyev when the war erupted in Ukraine in February. Like many others in her country, she did not believe that war could ever happen: “No one took it seriously.” After a month of terrifying Russian bombings and air raid sirens, she escaped to Poland with her family.

Eva Cherkasova of Ukraine, center, with the Chan family of Carmel Valley.
(Copyright Chan family)

There was no school for her to go to and Eva was determined to continue her education: “I had a dream to apply for university in the United States…It happened and I’m here,” Eva said.

She applied to High Bluff over the summer and Duoto reached out and offered her a scholarship. Eva’s effort to get a student visa was much easier than the process the Mohammadi siblings went through. Before coming to the U.S. by herself in the fall, she started taking High Bluff courses online. After putting the word out to the High Bluff community, Jean Tsai and Ray Chan of Carmel Valley offered to open up their home to her.

Eva said she is so appreciative of her host family. It has been easier than she thought it would be to adjust to life in America but she misses her family and her home country. The hardest part was saying goodbye and going off on her own.

“In this case, I grew up really fast…I had to learn to be responsible for myself, there is no one to take care of you,” Eva said. “I’m here and happy. But I read the news every night and it really upsets me, every day is the same… I don’t think the country can be rebuilt so quickly. It takes time to make it on the same level it was. I will really be happy to have an education here.”

She continues to hope for peace and for her country to rebuild in time: “Ukrainians are powerful, actually.”

Eva is interested in art and taking 11th grade classes at High Bluff while Mohammad and Aqila are taking ninth grade courses. Mohammad is interested in studying computer science and Aqila would like to be a journalist— she wants to tell the stories of her country’s people.

“Their attitude is so wonderful and they’re so happy to learn,” Duoto said of the students. “They’re always online researching, they keep up with everything, they’re so smart…so sophisticated and aware.”

Like Eva and Aqila, Mohammad said he is grateful to be in the U.S., safe and able to continue his education, something that many students may take for granted.

“I really appreciate Jill’s hard work and kindness,” Mohammad said. “It is a dream to come to the U.S. for education and then go back to Afghanistan, to use my education in my home country. But I feel a sad feeling that we may not get to go to our home country again. It’s a really sad feeling.”

“We are really glad and happy to have Jill in our lives.”