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'I Know Exactly What You Feel': Bay Area Afghans Work Overtime to Welcome New Refugees

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Two men, one inside the back of a truck and one on the street, unload large black garbage bags into a large rolling laundry cart.
Ashraf Hussain (L) and Walid Aziz from Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay bring household goods from the organization's offices in Concord to a family who recently arrived from Afghanistan, on Sept. 10, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On a recent morning at the Concord office of Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay, staff members filled an enormous laundry cart with basic supplies for a new household — a family of seven, just arrived from Afghanistan. They loaded up new pillows, sheets, comforters, towel sets, pots and pans, and a microwave oven still in the box.

As he helped wheel the cart to an elevator and out to the street, the father of the family looked bleary. He said they had gotten on a flight out of Kabul on Aug. 27, the day after a suicide bombing at the airport killed at least 175, and then spent over a week in transit.

The man said he had worked for U.S. Army Special Forces as an interpreter, and asked not to be identified because he feared the Taliban could harm his relatives back home if they knew he had left the country.

The man, his wife and their five children are among at least 2,000 Afghan evacuees who have arrived in California since July — most coming to the Bay Area and Sacramento. The East Bay office of JFCS has resettled 137.

And as the new arrivals begin to put the pieces of their lives together, the established Afghan community here is stepping up to help. It turns out Afghans who call Northern California home know a lot about what the newcomers are going through.

“We’re helping them, the same as if they were our family or our friends,” said Ashraf Hussain, the JFCS case manager who pushed the cart to the curb. “I feel so happy when I’m helping.”

A man wearing a mask pulls against a doorframe to help himself pull a massive laundry cart on wheels laden with items in black garbage bags through it.
Walid Aziz (L) and Ashraf Hussain from Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay bring household goods from the organization's offices in Concord on Sept. 10, 2021, to a family who recently arrived from Afghanistan. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Hussain loaded the bedding and kitchenware into a U-Haul, along with donated mattresses and furniture. He says when he arrived from Afghanistan in 2017, he did not get connected with a resettlement agency and had to fend for himself. Now, he wants his clients to have an easier path.

Hussain also was a U.S. Army interpreter. And, like this new family, he arrived on a special immigrant visa, which qualifies recipients for refugee benefits. Hussain’s job is to help this new family apply for food stamps and Medi-Cal, find housing in the costly Bay Area and enroll the kids in school.

Establishing stability for families fleeing chaos

Typically, Afghans airlifted out of Kabul were flown to Qatar and then to U.S. military bases in Germany, Italy or Uganda, says Fouzia Azizi, JFCS's director of refugee services. From there they travel to bases in the U.S. where they get medical screenings, coronavirus vaccinations and paperwork processed. Jewish Family and Community Services estimates that there are currently more than 53,000 Afghan evacuees at military bases in the U.S. and at least another 12,000 who will eventually arrive here.

Azizi says all the practical help Hussain and other staff members provide is the first step to establishing stability for families who have fled chaos.

Two women and a man sit at a table in a conference room, two with papers in front of them and one on a laptop. On the wall is a large framed print of a bouquet in a vase.
Fouzia Azizi (R), director of refugee services, meets with her team at Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay in Concord on Sept. 10, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“There's trauma involved. There’s fear involved. And the anxiety level is so high,” she said. “Folks that are getting here, they are extremely overwhelmed due to the long process. ... And also, they left their loved ones at home.”

But the new arrivals need more than beds and kitchenware. They need a sense of connection and emotional support, she says.

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“To be in touch with somebody that has a similar culture and also went through a similar experience,” she said. “It's a huge difference when you come and you have community members.”

Her staff at Jewish Family and Community Services works with refugees from Guatemala, Burma, Eritrea and elsewhere around the globe. But many case managers in the agency’s Concord office are Afghans who came to the Bay Area over the past four decades of war and upheaval in their homeland.

Azizi herself knows firsthand what these new families are feeling. She was a refugee once, too, fleeing Afghanistan with her family in 1994.

“The Islamic regime came to power and my house was put on fire. We left our house in the middle of the night,” she said. “And when I see my clients, and sometimes they are trying to explain their situation, I just say, ‘You don't need to tell me. I have been there ... And I know exactly what you feel.’”

Afghan diaspora steps up to support new arrivals

It’s not just refugee resettlement agencies that are reaching out to help the new arrivals. Across the Bay Area’s Afghan diaspora, community groups are raising money and organizing volunteers. And the cities of Fremont and Hayward, home to long-established Afghan communities, are collecting donations and coordinating legal aid and other services.

“A lot of the Afghans that have been working with me have slept very little in the last couple of weeks,” said Aisha Wahab, a Hayward city councilmember who is the daughter of Afghan refugees.

She says she’s seeing dozens of young Afghan Americans like herself taking time off from their jobs to pitch in.

“I have a friend who right now is volunteering with the Afghan Coalition. She is taking a solid month off. I have another friend who took two months off providing mental health services and translation,” Wahab said. “You have a lot of these young Afghans who have been deeply affected by their parents’ story ... and are saying that we are going to ease the arrival.”

Many of the Afghans now arriving on special immigrant visas are here because they worked for the U.S. And Wahab says that means many men, at least, already speak English, but their wives and children may not.

“Kids bounce back pretty quickly. The concern that a lot of us tend to have is with the women,” she said. “Women still have to be under these rigid cultural norms. ... They may not be able to potentially get a job or they may not have been educated even in Afghanistan. So the acclimation for Afghan women coming to the U.S. is going to be far more important and far more difficult than for pretty much anybody else.”

Assisting new refugees by drawing on personal displacement experiences

When Nazia Gabar arrived in the Bay Area in 2017 with her husband and baby, she did speak English. She was a professional woman who had worked for the U.S. government in Kabul. But the transition was still tough.

One morning earlier this month, Gabar perched on the sofa in her small, tidy apartment in a San Leandro housing development right beside the freeway and talked about those early days.

A woman wearing an orange salwar kameez and black hijab sits at a kitchen table typing on a laptop. A boy, age 4, sits right behind her on the chair.
While Nazia Gabar teaches English classes to women from Afghanistan who have resettled in the United States, one of her sons sits behind her at their home in San Leandro on Sept. 8, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“At first it's very difficult to adapt to a new culture, a new environment, new people,” she said. “At that time when we came, we were very stressful about everything because there was no home and no jobs. We didn't have any money and the rent was very high.”

Fortunately, some friends from Kabul had made the move a couple of years earlier and helped them get established. Gabar says even Afghans they had barely met were generous, offering rides and sharing suggestions about where to find a job or an apartment.

Now, Gabar works part time as a bookkeeper and teaches English classes to other Afghan women for Refugee & Immigrant Transitions, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

While her husband, Hassam Gabar, played with their two little boys, age 2 and 4, Gabar set up her laptop at the kitchen table and started her first Zoom class of the day. She composed a short dialogue about how to make a doctor’s appointment and then asked the students to take turns playing the roles of patient and receptionist.

Before the pandemic, the classes met in the Gabars’ living room. A dozen or so women from the neighborhood gathered around the whiteboard, and they brought their children, too. Gabar says it helped break the isolation — for her students and herself.

“The women were happy. They were meeting and talking to each other and the kids were playing,” she said. “We were supporting each other. Sometimes they were sharing their stories. We were talking about all that while learning English.”

With so many Afghan refugees arriving now, Gabar says she has been asked to take on more classes. She says she’ll try to fit them in, for the women’s sake.

Outside a curtained sliding glass door, a man holds a 2-year-old, as a 4-year-old moves toward the door as if to join them.
While Nazia Gabar teaches English classes to women from Afghanistan who have resettled in the United States, her husband Hassam plays with their two children at their home in San Leandro on Sept. 8, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Afghan woman, they always have headaches because they are away from their families,” she said. “We are used to living in a full, big family, with siblings and parents, everyone. But then when you come here, you are just alone with your husband and your husband goes to work and you are all day alone at home. They get depression.”

Mastering English is a kind of cure, Gabar says, because it offers these refugee women independence — the chance to drive, work and connect with the wider world.

In recent months, Hassam has been able to mind the kids while she teaches, because he’s been out of work. In Afghanistan, he worked in finance. When he got here, he drove for Uber, worked as a security guard and studied automotive engineering.

This month, though, he landed a job with a refugee agency. He says it’s not what he was expecting to do, but it’s actually very familiar — because he came of age in a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan.

“This work is actually the work I grew up with,” he said. “My father was working with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], in children’s rights, community education and health. So I observed how he worked. He was doing the same thing that people do in refugee organizations here.”

For the Gabars, assisting new refugees draws on what they’ve learned through their own displacement experience. And it’s a way of paying forward the help they got from more established Afghans when they were newcomers to the Bay Area a few years ago.

'I have the power to help humans'

Pausing to reflect in her office at Jewish Family and Community Services, Azizi said watching the news last month as Kabul fell to the Taliban brought back the pain she felt 27 years earlier when her own family fled the Taliban.

“When Kabul collapsed, that night and the nights after that, I was getting nightmares,” Azizi said. “The hurt is so deep, it's deep to my core. The disappointment level was so high that I felt numb.”

What has kept her going?

A woman stands right next to a window, which shines light on a painting of a hillside.
Fouzia Azizi, director of refugee services, holds artwork from Afghanistan in her office at the Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay in Concord on Sept. 10, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It gave me energy every day when I woke up to see that I have the power to help humans, disregard if they are Afghans or not. But right now, there’s a crisis in Afghanistan and our clients happen to be Afghans,” she said.

Being a refugee is a journey, said Azizi, regardless of what country a person has fled. The fact that so many of her staff were themselves forced to leave their homes, she believes, is a strength because they can serve as models for the newcomers.

“It gives them the hope that, ‘Oh, they are refugees as well ... and now they are in a position to be able to help us,’” she said. “When there’s a hope, the healing process is a possibility.”

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