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Afghan Refugees Try to Cope: Part 2 - 2002-09-10


English Feature #7-35627 Broadcast December 3, 2001

Refugees from Afghanistan who came to the United States in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion of their country, are now trying to help new Afghan refugees cope with the difficulties of resettlement. Today on New American Voices you'll hear about the challenges both groups face in today's America.

Zohra Javid, an energetic woman who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan seventeen years ago, is a volunteer helping new Afghan refugees find their bearings in this country. Her biggest challenge, she says, is getting them to actively take charge of their lives.

"I always ask them, please help us, because we want to help you guys, you have to help us. We want to show you - this is the school, or this is the work, you have to start it. This is a different country, you HAVE to start work, you HAVE to go to school, this is everything that you have to do. Please listen to us, like, this is our experience, this is the way you're supposed to do it, wake up and go do it, nobody will do it for you."

Mrs. Javid admits that Afghan newcomers in the Washington area - many of whom came after a long stay in Pakistani refugee camps - face some basic problems.

"The first problem is with the housing. For example, seven people live in one bedroom, or twenty people in one townhouse. First thing is the shelter. The second is, like - they're not used to work, because for a long time they stayed home. Sometimes I take them to the mall, they get dizzy, because they're not used to it. How can they start work right away? This is really, like, difficult for them. The third thing is money, not enough for them. And clothing, school - everything that you know, they need it."

Finding a job is not easy for refugees with little or no knowledge of English. Salim Basherdost was an engineer back in Kabul. Now he spends his days out on the streets looking for any kind of work, while his wife, twenty-four-year-old Anita, stays in the home of friends looking after the couple's three small children. As yet, they have no permanent address. The oldest son, seven-year-old Faisal, tells every visitor that what he wants most is to go to school.

"I'm Faisal. …" [He speaks in Dari.]

Another Afghan volunteer trying to help the Basherdost family, Laila Olumei Waziri, translates.

"He says, 'Auntie, I want you to find me a house - he's asking me - so that I can have my own house and go to school, I want to study.'"

Laila Waziri, a widow with three sons, came to the United States as a young girl twenty years ago. She wears the headscarf of an observant Muslim. In addition to working in a doctor's office and as a counselor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she takes the time to help recent Afghan refugees in Northern Virginia.

"Unfortunately when we came here we didn't have people like me or my friend Zohra or other organizations that could help people, and it was very hard for us, especially the first year was very, very hard. So that's why I'm trying to help."

Laila Waziri finds that the culture shock is greatest for Afghan women.

"After five years of being… having that freedom, you know, for a woman to go out by herself, or to drive -- all that freedom, it's a little bit hard for them, because they're still scared. They don't have the burka on, they're free, and still it's hard for them to adjust."

Mrs. Waziri, like many Muslim Americans, is herself now adjusting to the situation that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Even her children have been affected.

"Like my little son, at school, he's eight years old, this little boy came up and asked him, 'Where are you from?", and he said, "I'm from Afghanistan", and he turned around and told the other kids, 'Look, we have a terrorist here.' After the little boy left he went to the teacher and told her, 'This boy called me a terrorist, can you please explain to him that I'm not a terrorist?'"

The teacher and the counselor did explain to the boy, who later came to little Yusef Waziri and apologized. For Yusef's mother, this was an incident among children, and as such, understandable. Less understandable is the attitude of some grown-ups.

"Since we've been here all these years, and we left our country to come somewhere to have peace, and America is the only country where we've found peace, and happiness, and this is home for us, it hurts sometimes, especially after September 11th, when people look at you and say, 'Get out of this country', or 'Go home'. One time I looked around at this guy, he was an older guy, and I said, "This is my home, this is my country, where do you want me to go?"

Next week on this program, -- immigrants from Russia who were affected by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

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