On May 5th, 2022 Rezwan Kohistani’s body was found hanging in a baseball field at Webb City High School in Missouri. He was only 14 years old.
Rezwan and his family had immigrated to Webb City as refugees fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan just last spring. He came with his father, mother, five brothers and his young sister. Rezwan began attending Webb City High School, the same school where his body was found, that spring as well. Despite neither the autopsy report being published or the official investigation being complete, the Jasper County Coroner Randy Nace has already ruled the teen’s death a suicide by hanging.
The school did not make an official statement about Rezwan’s death until 11 days after his body was found, and after community members questioned the school’s silence. In defense of the school’s decision to remain silent, Webb City Superintendent Anthony Rossetti said in a statement made to the Joplin Globe, “We did not tell everybody that wanted to know; we told the people we thought needed to know. Being one of the people that was there that morning, I can tell you as a parent there is no way that you would want all this information about what happened to your child across any newspaper or anywhere. I completely agree with them (the family) in their request for privacy.”
The Webb City school district continued with the narrative that the family had requested the school’s silence on the matter of their son’s death, but community members as well as the family themselves have said the exact opposite.
In a statement released by the Afghan-American foundation on behalf of the Kohistani family, the family stated they want “a prompt and in-depth investigation into Rezwan’s death and any events that may have contributed to it. If this means that local authorities must partner with counterparts in the federal government then we welcome that and ask that there not be any further delay in getting that help to Webb City.”
With the Kohistani family’s statement, many are questioning why the superintendent of Webb City claimed the school’s silence on Rezwan’s death was on behalf of the family’s request, especially considering when a student of the Webb City school district had tragically committed sucicie in 2019, the school made a public announcement the very same day.
Despite Anthony Rossetti’s odd excuses for their silence, the school has since then announced an investigation into Rezwan’s death. Some community members have expressed allegations of bullying, but according to a statement made to the Joplin Globe by superintendent Anthony Rossetti, he is unaware of them but says, “However, if there are, those people need to contact the police department to do their investigation into those allegations. We want the family to have answers, if there are answers to be had. We completely support that.” The Webb City school district has not responded to our request for further comment.
Along with the history of violent white supremacy in Southwest Missouri, including the growing amounts of white supremacist gangs such as the Joplin Honkies, the Sacred Seperatist Group (SSG), and the 2012 burning of a mosque in Joplin, support for racial minorities is very limited in the Webb City school district and Southwest Missouri as a whole.
McKenna Jade, a parent of the Webb City district says “kids will bully if you’re disabled, poor (low) social status, or if you’re just different…their message is that they care, every kid matters. But they don’t really care.”
The school also seems to offer very little to no teachings on race or racial history, and in a town of 92% white people, it can become isolating for anyone who is not white. Laela Zaidi, a former resident of Joplin and Sunrise KC Leader, says “Southwest Missouri is a majority white and very Evangelical Christian area, there are churches on every corner of the entire region but in Joplin especially…I very regularly experienced bullying because of my race and my religion, both physical bullying and name calling. I stand with the family in calling for a full investigation because it is not implausible that Rezwan experienced similar mistreatment.” According to a recent study done by the California branch of the Council of Islamic Relations (CAIR), 55% of Muslim students don’t feel safe at school, with 47% of them being bullied for their religion and race as well.
The Webb City school district also seemed to have almost no resources for Rezwan himself, along with any incoming refugees. When Rezwan arrived at Webb City high school, there were no translators to help him communicate with his teachers, administration or even other students. His education as well as his communications with anyone other than his family relied on google translate, which in itself is unreliable when translating the Dari language that Rezwan spoke. Rezwan was also not offered any mental health resources, but of course unless a translator was provided the only way he could be able to communicate to the mental health resource facilitators would be Google translate. Refugee children are more likely to have PTSD, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and more compared to non refugee children, so the lack of mental care offered to Rezwan as well as any refugee student is alarming.
Many community members are also wondering why the Kohistani family was resettled in Webb City in the first place. RAISE, a nonprofit organization who has resettled nearly 100 refugees in the Southwest Missouri area, was responsible for enrolling Rezwan in Webb City High School and supporting the family’s transition in the Joplin area. Despite there being a small established Muslim community in the Joplin area, they do not all speak the same langauge nor have the same culture. Many of the Muslim community members in the Joplin area are also not refugees, with many choosing to live there for professional opportunities. This is not the same story for the Kohistani family. Rezwan himself was the first ever Afghan student in Webb City High School’s history.
Many are questioning the amount of support provided by RAISE to the family in regards to their efforts to integrate with the community. There seems to be a negligence of the needs of the Kohistani family, as well as refugees in the Joplin areas as a whole. In what has been weeks now, RAISE has not responded to our requests for comment.
The family need answers to what happened to Rezwan and will continue to demand them. “No parent ever imagines having to bury their child,” says Lemar Kohistani, the father of Rezwan in a statement released by the Afghan American Foundation. “Rezwan was a bright light in our life.”
The community feels the loss as well. Laela Zaidi says, “I see someone who was an amazing brother, had a beautiful smile, and had his whole life ahead of him. It’s such a grief, and I’m also thinking of the young Brown and Black boys who don’t get enough mental health access they deserve and need…I hope his death won’t be in vain, and serve as a wake-up call to all of us.” Rezwan and the Kohistani family were failed on multiple levels, by the school, by the resettlement organizations, and by our government. They deserve answers and justice now.
If you would like to support the Kohistani family’s resettlement to Dallas, Texas you can donate here.