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Afghan Refugees Find Help, Hardship in Washington Area


Afghan refugees coming to the Washington area find that beginning a new life in a new country is not easy. Yet they also find people, often Afghans who arrived here earlier, who are willing to help them with the difficult first steps of finding housing, a job, schools for their children.

Travelers along a busy suburban street in Annandale, just outside of Washington, D.C., see a pretty little mosque with minarets and a bright blue roof standing next to the convenience stores, craft shops and take-out restaurants of a typical neighborhood shopping mall. It is the Mustafa Center, the focal point for refugees from Afghanistan who have settled in Northern Virginia. Their numbers are estimated at between 40,000 and 60,000.

"The Mustafa Center, it's the biggest community center for Afghans in Virginia," says Laila Olumec Waziri. "And we do have a lot of Afghans that come here for prayers, and we have schools for children that come here to learn about the religion and the culture so they don't forget their own culture, even though they're here in the United States. And also, you know, help other refugees when they come here and they need some help."

Like many of the Afghan refugees living in Northern Virginia, she came to this country twenty years ago, part of the wave of refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. Now she works with the Mustafa Center and the International Federation of Afghan Women trying to help new Afghan refugees adapt to life in America. "We go and help them get settled, take them shopping, tell them how to talk to people, show them around, help them, like, do their paperwork or take them to the doctors to do their physical," she says. "When they come here, there's a lot of work, especially if they don't know the language… it's totally a different atmosphere for them, a different culture, and a lot of times it's very hard."

One recent Afghan refugee, Ainal Hoor Ziaia, teaches Dari and the Koran at the Mustafa Center. Mrs. Ziaia, a petite woman in a gray-and-black headscarf, came to the United States from Pakistan four months ago with her husband and son. She has since learned a little English. "America is a beautiful country, and people in America is very friendly, and I love my job, my job as a [teacher]…", she says.

Mrs. Ziaia's husband Mohayuddin is an imam with the Mustafa Center, leading the prayers which observant Muslims say five times a day.

The Ziaias are fortunate to have found work so soon after arriving in the United States. Many other refugees are not so lucky. One of the people for whom Mrs. Waziri is trying to find a job is 25-year-old Sonya Nasrin, who was a gynecologist in one of the few clinics for women the Taleban allowed to remain open in Kabul. "Yes, I am doctor," she says. "I studying medical doctor in Afghanistan. Woman doctor and nurses can go to the hospital. Just women doctors and nurses. When I go to the hospital, I wear my burka. Every nurse and every doctor wear our burka. In hospital, no, in hospital just chador. Black chador. But Taleban difficult for me."

Having fled the Taleban and their restrictions, Dr. Nasrin now wears a colorful shirt and jeans, and looks like a typical American. But her life is far from typically American, as yet. Although she receives some help from her resettlement agency, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, or ECDC, she says she finds her present circumstances very difficult. "Sorry, I haven't a house, but ECDC office help me, $200 for my house, just for one month, but this is not enough for me. I haven't job, I haven't house, this my very, very bad problem," she says.

Sonya Nasrin would like to continue to work in her profession, but she knows that this is far in the future. "Because I doctor, I like my doctor job, but my English is very little, I want to learn English. I want to go to school, but I haven't car, no family, nobody help for me, this my big problem," she says. "Some friends, but they haven't time [to] help me."

An energetic Afghan woman who immigrated to the Washington area eighteen years ago, Zohra Javid now volunteers to help more recent Afghan refugees get settled. She says that the new refugees, who mostly come through refugee camps in Pakistan, often have unrealistic expectations about life in America. "Because when they lived in Pakistan they just give them everything, like - okay, when you go there you have housing, you have all the help you know about, they have it," she says. "But when they come here, they get disappointed. Because they are stuck in one basement, or one room, they start crying, they get upset, they get very, very depressed, they get sick."

However, based on her experience, Zohra Javid is optimistic about the refugees' capacity to adapt. "And we always tell them, okay, you cry right now, but after one year we find a job, you got a house, at least a car, you're not going to cry," she says.