TRY THIS IN YOUR HOMETOWN, BUT DON'T DO IT ALONE
Like many of my peers, I discovered in my sixties that volunteering for causes I care about fills me with purpose and joy. So, when I heard that my small southern city was taking in more than 150 Afghan refugees, I signed up to help. As a white, middle-income, semi-retired woman, I’m a cliche among new refugee sponsors, motivated by the best of intentions, but not always the best awareness of all that sponsorship entails.
Looking back now from the vantage point of 18 months, I wish my sponsorship journey had started with an overview of Afghan culture, languages, ethnicities, and worldviews. I wish I’d been forewarned about the rollercoaster of adjustment that research shows most refugees experience. I wish I’d had a one-stop-shop for all the resources and information I would need to navigate the benefits and social services refugees are entitled to. I wish there had been a way for sponsors to listen to and learn from each others’ stories.
That’s why I hope my story of sponsoring Mustafa and Ferdous,*might help some of the 10,000 sponsors who will join Welcome Corps this year. I share it with the permission of Mustafa and Ferdous, who’ve traveled this journey with me. Their story is my story.
Enjoy the Honeymoon
Mustafa and Ferdous were high-school graduates in Afghanistan but spoke little English when they arrived in the U.S. Two single men in their twenties who had never lived apart from their parents, they didn’t have a clue what their American life would entail. Nevertheless, our first weeks after their arrival were heady and empowering, a honeymoon spring full of action and decision-making.
Despite the gap in our ages, languages, and ability to navigate the apps on our cell phones (they rock at this!) we became friends with a shared mission. I helped move them from hotels to a cheap apartment. They helped clean the windows and learned how to use an American-style oven. I lassoed household belongings, including a blender from the basements of charities and friends. They made elaborate and delicious smoothies.
I took them to dental and doctor’s appointments; they learned to go to the reception window and say in English “I have an appointment . . . my birthday is . . .” I took them grocery shopping, pointing out how to tell vegetarian beans from pork and beans (Muslims do not eat pork). They taught me what is halal and what is haram (unclean and forbidden). They learned the bus routes so they could get to the local community college for daily ESL classes.
I identified jobs that didn’t require speaking English and helped fill out paperwork. We spent hours at the bank getting them accounts and learned to use Moneygram so they could send most of their earnings back to their families in Afghanistan.
I invited them to family dinners and took them on outings. We even took a camping trip to the beach where they saw the ocean for the first time in their lives.
For me, those first few months showing “my guys” the ins and outs of American life were full of surprises and joy and curiosity. I felt like what I did mattered.
Now I know that Mustafa and Ferdous were also experiencing a honeymoon from the fear and hardship of leaving their home country. On our road trip, they took turns playing loud Persian music over my car speakers, clapping and singing along. At the beach I watched them dive into the surf and rise laughing and splashing each other like children. They made lamb kabobs on the campfire, then taught me an Afghan card game that translated humorously as Piss Goat. We laughed a lot in those days!
But the honeymoon didn’t last.
You Will Need a Lawyer in Your Circle
By the summer of 2022, seeking asylum (the only pathway to permanent residency for Afghan refugees) became our highest priority. Another sponsor and I started a GoFundMe to raise thousands of dollars that would bankroll application fees and travel. Then, alongside a pro bono attorney and an interpreter, I helped secure affidavits to document their stories and demonstrate credible threat.
One moment from that arduous process is lodged like an arrow in my heart. At the final meeting before we would travel to Virginia for his hearing, the attorney and I sat across from Ferdous in a conference room. We had a Dari interpreter between us on Zoom. We’d crossed all the t’s, dotted all the i’s, and signed all the x’s. Then Ferdous leaned forward as if putting his arms around something precious and murmured, “Thank you for helping me to carry my burden.”
The interpreter, also an Afghan refugee, translated the phrase “carry my burden” with tender precision. His voice and his care pressed home for me the compassionate intention of everybody involved up to this point. We were all working together, balancing and sharing the load. “Many hands make light work,” I thought. If we all help, we can do this.
That feeling buoyed me through three separate multi-day trips accompanying Afghans to the USCIS office in Virginia. Their lawyer continued to play a key part in their resettlement, reassuring them that they are “doing everything right” and we just need to wait, wait, wait.
Still, each time their hopes for permanent residence were raised and dashed, Mustafa and Ferdous grew a little more anxious. They had a safe place to live, paying work, and me showing up almost daily to help, but they didn’t feel “at home.” They didn’t feel like they belonged here.
Mustafa told me one day, “It feels as if half of my body is still in Afghanistan.”
It gets harder for everybody after the first six months.
As 2022 unfolded, Afghan refugees fell off the front page and then out of the news altogether, replaced by news about Ukraine. Another Afghan refugee in town suffered a psychiatric breakdown. A friend, on whom they had often depended for interpretation, got his CDL license and left town to become a long-haul trucker. Our case manager became inaccessible. The circle of friends I’d cobbled together to help me frayed; post-covid, people returned to their pickle ball games and pandemic delayed vacations.
Meanwhile, Mustafa and Ferdous quit their English classes to take on more hours at low wage jobs. Since they were either asleep or at work, I hardly saw them. Working 60 or 70 hours a week, their income exceeded the eligibility threshold for food stamps and Medicaid. They continued to send hundreds of dollars back to their families each month. The agency stopped paying for their housing, and they added rent and utilities to those financial responsibilities. Ferdous’s resubmitted asylum case triggered yet another request for biometric data; for the third time I drove an hour to the next county for a five-minute appointment at the authorized fingerprint office.
They felt betrayed and angry at me and the American system. Later I would hear another refugee express the issue this way. “You feel guilty because your life is so easy compared to the family you left behind. And then you feel guilty for feeling guilty because you are supposed to show gratitude instead of being cranky and confused.”
I also felt powerless. Even with an interpreter, I couldn’t explain the nuances of public benefits fraud or the complexities of car loans and health insurance. Their sometimes contradictory demands flummoxed and frustrated me. They wanted better jobs, but refused to spend money on a reliable used car–the first requirement for most jobs in my city. They wanted a “new, cheaper house,” but balked at accompanying me through the process of looking for apartments or the prospect of signing a lease. It was hard to set boundaries, and harder still to maintain my cool.
Then one random Tuesday, I got word from Mustafa’s lawyer that he’d been granted asylum. My heart leapt! The lawyer and I delivered the good news in person. Mustafa beamed, gripping the official paperwork with the USCIS barcode and stamp reading “granted indefinitely.” It was a pathway to permanent residency in the U.S. For the first time in months, Mustafa looked like he believed in the future.
Sometimes the Only Thing You Can Do Is Listen—and Grieve
We made it past the first year. Winter crumbled into a soggy April and the long, fasting days of Ramadan. The burden of resettlement changed again, for me and for my boys. They began managing their own finances and daily routines. I went back to my part-time work. My role shifted to fewer hands-on tasks but more worry.
After “Salam,” a traditional Afghan greeting between friends is a ping pong game of “How are you?” “How do you feel?” “How is your mother?” “How is your family?” I’ve taken up this tradition, but Mustafa has learned the art of American directness.
“Not good,” he tells me, then turns away.
The situation in Afghanistan, where his family remains, spirals downward almost daily. Since the Taliban replaced the western-backed democratic government 18 months ago, its leaders have squeezed the economy dry. There are no jobs, little food, and less security. Soldiers come at all times of day or night to search houses for guns, money, documents of those who might once have been allied with the West.
Mustafa and his family are Hazara, members of an ethnic minority persecuted by the Pashtun majority for more than a century. In the last year, Hazara neighborhoods, schools, and Shia mosques have been specifically targeted by extremist groups and unprotected by the Taliban.
Worse, for half the population, the Taliban has imposed a gender apartheid which Amnesty International says is of “such magnitude, gravity, and systematic nature” that it should be investigated as a crime against humanity. Essentially imprisoned in their own homes, women and girls, including Mustafa’s sisters, are losing hope.
Like many refugees, Mustafa wants to reel his relatives into the safety net of democracy. But America defines family as a legal spouse and minor children. Until he is a citizen, he cannot legally petition for his siblings or parents to join him. That could take years. Powerless to help them, the knowledge of what is happening to his family who cannot leave Afghanistan is like the relentless ache of a false limb after amputation.
Over another cup of tea, I tell him, “I know our immigration system is not fair. I know you want to help your family, and I hope someday you can be with them again.”
“Maybe in heaven,” he says, ushering in a shadow that’s been lurking more and more lately.
That shadow follows him everywhere these days. I am honored by his trust, for the moments when he lets down his guard enough to whisper that he’s thought about drugs, even about suicide. Culturally affirming mental health care for Afghans and other refugees is available through organizations like Give an Hour, USCRI, and HealTorture.org.
But for Mustafa and many refugees, there are still stigmas associated with mental illness and seeking treatment.“I was only joking,” he tells me when I try to give him some resources in Dari. Dark humor has always been a coping mechanism for the vulnerable.
The road to adjustment in year two and beyond is full of landmines. One research model calls it “the period of negotiation.” I see the risk of alienation and isolation in my guys’ rejection of formal English lessons. I also understand that learning a new language feels like a betrayal of their true identity and an insurmountable task. Like throwing darts at a target in the fog.
My daughter, a psychologist, tells me the most important thing I can do as their Khala (aunt) Anne, is witness and listen.
Somehow that never feels like enough.
Nurture a Community of Care for Yourself
Welcome Corp advertises that sponsoring a refugee “will change a life, including your own.” It’s true. I started my journey with outstretched arms and an open heart thinking I would just provide the “stuff” of resettlement: jobs, housing, etc. But now I know that belonging to a place is so much more than being able to find your way to work and buy the right beans. And being a sponsor is so much more than raising money and running errands.
To counter my own self-doubt and connect with others doing refugee work, I recently started an Afghan film and discussion series at my local library. Thirty sponsors showed up! After the film, we shared our accomplishments and our heartbreak. An ex-marine on a team trying to get SIV’s out of Pakistan cried. A sponsor circle leader shared a Go-Fund-Me campaign for a family who’d just suffered a house fire. We grieved together and empathized over the weight of the task we’d signed up for.
Then we traded phone numbers and set up coffee dates. Last week a group of us met to organize a new fund raising project in concert with a circle of Afghan women crafters. As my circle of sponsorship grows, I feel lighter and more committed than I have in a long time. Their stories and their spirit are the breath I need—we need—for the long journey home.
* Refugees’ names have been changed to protect their identities and security.
For more information about how to sign up to sponsor a refugee in your community, please visit Welcome Corps.
Suggested readings: The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri, and We are Displaced, by Malala Yousafzai
Beth Vilen is on Twitter @BethVilen.
The Emerald Project is a Utah-based organization that carefully designs dialogues to engage with non-Muslims to make Salt Lake Valley a more welcoming home to Muslims. As many of our refugee friends belong to the Muslim faith, we applaud opportunities that foster understanding and were pleased to support The Emerald Project’s 3rd annual “Slam the Islamophobia” event on February 15th.
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