Amy Underwood  ·  United States

Their Family Became Ours

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It started with watching the news. As a family, we watched Afghanistan unravel and knew we wanted to help. We have a guest house, so we offered to have someone come live there. In the end, a family of nine came to stay with us.

When our assigned family was safe on US soil - in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin - and we had done some deep background checks on them, we were allowed to speak together on the phone. That was the first week of September 2021. They arrived at my house on September 28th.

When they first got here I had no idea what to expect. I went to Costco and bought all kinds of American food. I have no idea if that got thrown away or was enjoyed! The kitchen was stocked with everything I could think of. But I didn’t have the right kind of rice cooker and some of the tools that they are used to. There was definitely a learning curve but we worked together to figure out how to make them feel at home.

I think we were matched really well. Their family became ours right off the bat. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t awkward sometimes. For example, theirs is not a hugging culture. When they first arrived, my sons (21 and 17 years old) went to hug the 17 year old daughter and she was like, “No, I am so sorry, but I can’t hug.” My boys were so embarrassed. They didn’t mean to offend, they were just trying to be welcoming but it is not acceptable in their culture for boys to hug girls. There were a few things like that, we had to get used to.

Repeatedly, complete strangers stepped in with exactly what we needed.

In addition to the cultural learning curve, the family had quite a few medical issues. After working many hours with the IRC [International Refugee Committee] and County office, we finally got insurance late in December… three months after their arrival. It was challenging to figure out how to meet their needs. If we hadn’t had connections - friends of friends that were doctors and the resources to pay out of pocket when necessary, I don’t know what we would have done. But, repeatedly complete strangers stepped in with exactly what was needed.

The father had severe heart issues. We found a specialist in Monterey who speaks Dari and would see him without insurance. When we got there, the doctor said he had to be transferred to the hospital right away. Luckily, the hospital applied for emergency MediCal insurance for him because he was going to have a pacemaker put in. The whole situation was really a testament to the kindness of strangers.

After that, when people would ask me how they could help, I would tell them I needed to find Farsi-speaking doctors. By this time, we had learned that the family’s language, Dari, was actually a dialect of Farsi, which is fairly common in the Bay Area where we live. One of my friends connected me with an independent practitioner who was willing to see the mother, who had uncontrolled diabetes, without insurance. She treated her with such dignity and care. And she let us pay her directly for blood work so we could get a wholesale rate since I was paying for the tests out of pocket.

Then there was the 25 year old daughter-in-law, who was pregnant. We found a Farsi-speaking OB/GYN who would see us during her lunch break since we still didn’t have insurance. She held back on ordering certain tests for the baby that weren’t medically necessary so it wouldn’t be so expensive. When the baby was born in November, we went to the emergency room, and had a rough go with the doctor on call there. We’d been in the hospital for two hours, and the young mother was dilated three centimeters. It was her third baby, so chances were high that the baby would come quickly. We didn’t have insurance. And the ER doctor wasn’t very nice about it and tried to discharge us. So I called the OB/GYN who had been seeing us on her lunch break. She said, “I’ll take care of it.”

When the baby came, she sobbed- the doctor sobbed! She's from Iran, Persian. From a family of immigrants and I think helping deliver a U.S.citizen - the power of that - was kind of overwhelming for her, and for me.

The next thing I knew, she walked into the delivery room. She had been on call at the hospital for 24 hours, and she came back. She brought fruit, flowers, and a $200 gift card for the mama. And she delivered the baby. She dismissed the other doctor and took over. And then, when the baby came, she sobbed- the doctor sobbed! She’s from Iran, Persian. From a family of immigrants and I think helping deliver a U.S. citizen - the power of that - was kind of overwhelming for her, and for me.

These are random people that we didn’t know. I just met that doctor. It was like a friend of a friend kind of situation. She just wanted to do good and do right by these people. And I think that is inspiring. And shame on the doctor who wanted to kick her out. When the other doctor heard that they were immigrants from Afghanistan she suddenly wanted to know more. She said,“You know my parents immigrated from India and I have a friend who is trying to help an Afghan family.” She wanted to pick my brain on ideas but I was so upset that she had been so dismissive of my sweet pregnant mom! It shouldn’t matter where you come from or if you have insurance, everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.

The 25 year old daughter-in-law’s husband is in Turkey. He and his brother went there on a business trip and got stuck. They didn’t expect Kabul to fall as quickly as it did.

In addition to health insurance, the other logistical issues we had to deal with were a nightmare, and some of them still aren’t resolved.

When the pregnant daughter-in-law entered the US, she got a humanitarian parolee stamp in her passport with an expiration date of August 21, 2021. It was already expired when they gave it to her. Total human error. But we spent around 80 hours trying to figure out how to get that fixed. There was nobody who could help us. Once I got the right information, it took thirty seconds at the San Francisco immigration office to get it corrected.

In addition, when our family was still at Fort McCoy, they filled out I-94 arrival forms and had their fingerprints taken. Well, the mother’s fingerprints didn’t transfer correctly. They should have caught the error right away, but they were rushing thousands of people through so it slipped through the cracks. Now, because her original fingerprints are unreadable, the mother’s work authorization form has been denied. This means that she can’t get her social security number, and she’s not eligible for resettlement benefits. I contacted the former head of the UCSIS, who works as an attorney in DC. Even with his help, it still hasn’t been resolved. It’s been almost a year now.

On top of that, the 25 year old daughter-in-law’s husband is in Turkey. He and his brother went there on a business trip and got stuck. They didn’t expect Kabul to fall as quickly as it did. So they are separated for the foreseeable future. It’s traumatic for them because they have a five year old, a three year old with autism, and now a newborn baby. Prospects of getting him over here are pretty bleak. The wife has met with an immigration attorney, but she has to have her green card to apply for him to come over, and she may not get that for two years or more.

However, this is a resilient family. They worry about their people back home. They left everything they worked for their whole lives. But they are so grateful for every opportunity they have in America. They don’t take anything for granted. When they decided to move down to Irvine, CA, after just six months, it was difficult to say good-bye. We all cried. Our lives became so intertwined, and we developed a lifelong bond. I cannot wait to see them soon.

I would do it all over again. Am I doing it again anytime soon? Maybe not. I might need a little breather, but I would do it again. This family’s willingness to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is extraordinary. I’m inspired by them. I’m in awe of them. And I love them. We’re lucky to have them in America. They’re going to do good things.

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