Farkhanda Ehssan puts out plates of sweets and nuts like any good American hostess would. She asks Helena DaSilva Hughes and myself if we would like coffee or tea and seems surprised when we both say tea.
Just two weeks in New Bedford and two months in the United States, the Afghan refugee speaks fluent English and with a familiar American accent, making fewer grammatical mistakes than I sometimes do. It is clear how much she wants to be a part of her new country and how happy she is to be here.
“I’m so grateful to the American people,” she said, explaining that she will no longer have to worry about Taliban attacks or bombings or someone dragging children away to fight some day.
“America. It’s really the country everyone would like to be in,” she said.
Farkhanda, however, is not Pollyannaish about the road ahead for herself, her husband, their three children, and three other Afghan families who have so far arrived in New Bedford.
Right now Farkhanda’s family is living in a second-floor walk-up in one of the very poorest neighborhoods in the city. While Helena Hughes and I were visiting, someone suddenly knocked on the back door and asked if she could borrow $20. It was the third or fourth time that has happened in the two weeks she has been here, Farkhanda said.
The family was middle-class in Afghanistan, owning their own three-story home and a car, and their children were in good schools. Her husband has a B.A. and M.A. in business administration and worked in procurement and logistics support. She worked in an agency that advocates for women’s rights, helping women get small loans to start businesses.
“Our lives were good. We were in the capital,” she said. “We had a good home, an established life.”
All of that, however, was turned upside down in a minute when the Taliban recaptured Kabul in August. The family realized they had to flee as soon as possible.
Farkhanda said she left her house open when she fled, knowing there was no point in locking it. She has since heard that everything in the dwelling has disappeared. The family’s savings are unavailable as the Afghan banks are all closed to them.
The day she heard the Taliban were in Kabul, she said she rushed to the TV and soon realized she had to bring her children home from school immediately. The public transportation had shut down, and her husband, who normally arrives home at 2 in the afternoon, had to walk for miles and miles, arriving only at 7:30 that evening.
Farkhanda’s family was lucky. They possessed what are called SIVs (special immigration visas) available to those associated with the Americans. Someone — she doesn’t know who — called one day and told them to go to the Kabul Airport at an appointed time. They told the caller it was too dangerous, but they were provided with an escort.
“That was an unforgettable day for everyone,” she said.
Her family was herded down into the belly of a cargo airplane with a thousand other people, her two boys and a girl terrified from the roaring engines.
From there, they were flown to Kuwait, where it was 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and she kept pouring bottles of water on her children to cool them.
Next they went to an American air base in Germany for a month, then on to another American base in El Paso, Texas, and finally to Massachusetts, for which she is grateful because it is not too distant from her sister and friends in Virginia.
Once here on the South Coast, however, the enormity of the task before them became apparent, Farkhanda said.
The International Institute of New England, which coordinates resettlement efforts for the Afghan refugees in New Bedford, will pay their rent for the first six months, and there is some additional support by way of food stamps and such. Her husband is temporarily working in a blue-collar warehouse job, and she is at home with the children. They are earning nowhere what it will cost to pay for a $2,000-per-month, three-bedroom apartment, never mind the other costs of living.
DaSilva Hughes, longtime director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, said that Farkhanda — and three Afghan families who don’t speak English at all and who have also come to New Bedford — are in need of a case worker who can work with them more intensely. A fifth Afghan family has come to Dartmouth.
“We’re hoping the International Institute will have someone in New Bedford full time that can provide case management that is so desperately needed,” said Hughes, who is working as a liaison with the families. She suggested that Farkhanda, with her English fluency, could work in that role — especially with the families who don’t speak English and who come from a world where she estimates more than 90% of the women do not work outside the home and have never interacted with men other than those in their own families.
Hughes said Farkhanda could relay to the Boston agency what things are like on the ground in New Bedford. “It’s very important for the international Institute to not only hear it, but to feel it,” she said.
Farkhanda tried to explain the cultural gulf between the West and her part of the world.
“I’m educated, but there are persons coming from Afghanistan who cannot even write their own name in their own language,” she said. “Do you really think that person can know everything in one year?”
In Afghanistan, girls are supposed to be at home, she explained. They are supposed to follow what their father, their husband, their brother says. “They never talk to a man outside their families,” she said. “They are in cultural shock. Not only the women, but their husbands, too.”
Farkhanda estimates it will take five years of financial support or even more to help Afghans adjust to Western ways, which she said is far different from immigrants from Europe or South America.
“Do you think a person here for six months will allow his lady to go out, that the lady could go out?” she asked.
Hughes said that the city of New Bedford has helped out and provided a lot of support through Fresh Start for things like furniture. Volunteers have also helped as much as they can.
She emphasized that refugees are not the same as immigrants. “Refugees come here because they have no other choice,” she said. “There is a moral obligation we have in the U.S. to help these families who were our allies in Afghanistan.”
Farkhanda said her husband, who worked for his family in Afghanistan, has so many problems on his mind as they try to get on their feet.
“The most thing that makes us worried is our future. The life we are going to have here,” she said. “The life we were able to have in our country, when will we be able to have that kind of life here?” she asked.
Everything — food, clothing medicine — cost only $1,000 a month in Afghanistan, she remembered.
She wonders how she could have a full-time job when her three children come home at different times and day care is so expensive. She knows nothing about the American social programs that may be available to help her, she said.
Help Afghan families in New Bedford
If you would like to help the Afghan families who have arrived in New Bedford, please contact the International Institute of New England at: International Institute of New England Development Office, 2 Boylston St., 3rd Floor, Boston, MA 02116 or call 617-801-5257. They are accepting food certificates.
You can also contact the Immigrant Assistance Center in New Bedford at 508-735-1953.
When the six months are up, what will happen to them, she asked, clearly struggling with apprehension over it. “What will happen if we are not able to pay our home rent?” she said. “That’s the thing I’m really, really worried about.”
An official with the International Institute said the agency cannot place a case worker in New Bedford for just four families.
Anca Moraru, the Boston managing director for the agency, said they have hired an interpreter, a 30-year-old Afghan woman who has lived on the South Coast since she was 2 years old. Besides translating, she takes the refugees grocery shopping, gives them rides and transports the kids to schools.
The Boston case workers are visiting New Bedford all the time, Moraru said, noting they work with families on job placements and obtaining vouchers to help with expenses. “We talk to them on the phone frequently. They have access to them all the time.”
Moraru said that sometimes the refugees can be unrealistic about what it takes to build a life in America, where it is much more expensive than their home countries.
“A lot of them will start with blue-collar jobs because the U.S. does not recognize credentials from other countries,” she said. “It’s very, very hard. I don’t think they know what it means to come to the U.S.”
Even for Americans, it takes time to save up to purchase a house, Moraru said. But she believes Fakhandah, with her skills, will move up quickly. She is resourceful, she said.
“They’re going to become self-sufficient soon,” she said. “Buying a house and a car, that’s going to take a few years.”
The International Institute is on the verge of finding an apartment in a safer neighborhood for Farkhanda’s family, Moraru said.
The institute is working with the cultural introductions for pretty much all of the refugees, she said. But things take time, and she understands the fears.
“It’s a scary situation. She left her whole life back there,” she said.
They will continue to work with the refugees and plan to place more in New Bedford. Some 40 Afghan refugee families have settled in Boston.
“They’re asking for a lot of guarantees,” Moraru said. “Some we can make, some we cannot.”
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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