Photo by Jamie Wiggan
Afghan refugee Sayed with two of his three children. He and his wife Kubra, who asked not to be pictured, had to leave behind a 9-year-old son with other family members when fleeing to the United States.
By Jamie Wiggan
Sayed and Kubra cycled through waves of relief and sorrow as they walked up to the counter and pressed their fingers onto the glowing glass plates that registered their identities in the American immigration database.
After three days camped outside Kabul International Airport, the call for biometrics meant they would soon depart their war-torn homeland where they had become targets of the insurgent Taliban regime. It also meant leaving behind their nine-year-old son who had been taken to hospital by Sayed’s brother after falling ill in the encampment outside.
Somewhere across the terminal, Namatulla Popal was anxiously waiting for his family to join him as he also sought asylum from the new regime. Popal had fled his station in Southern Afghanistan in a three-wheel taxi before flying from Kandahar to Kabul, where U.S. forces were overseeing evacuations. He was limping from a leg injury sustained in combat with the Taliban six months earlier.
Both families weathered the ensuing evacuation process that took them through Qatar and Germany before they finally touched down on U.S. soil. They would later settle within a few miles of each other in the Western suburbs of Pittsburgh, where they’re trying to rebuild their lives.
Now renting an apartment in the “Bottoms” of McKees Rocks, Popal is still recovering from the wound that slowed his escape last summer. The former special forces officer had stood on a makeshift bottle mine during a night operation to secure an area from Taliban control, leaving his leg and foot broken in multiple places.
He expects to make a full recovery and is eager to begin working.
“Even if I get paid $10 an hour, I will work, and work hard,” he said. “Because… now this is our new home, this is our new soil. I want to work here and serve all people here, too.”
Although he mourns family and friends left behind, Popal said he’s committed to building a new life here with his wife and three children, who did not participate in an interview for this story because they were fasting for Ramadan.
“Me and my family, we lived in a war, that’s enough,” he said. “From here my plan is to start a normal life and live in a peaceful environment and get educated. Everyone in my family – me, my wife, my kids.”
Now living in Scott with Kubra and their youngest two children, Sayed said the warring pangs of joy and anguish softened during the long journey to America as he reflected on his family’s comparative fortune against the many left behind.
“During that chaotic situation, we were in a position on a tiny line between life and death,” he said.
“We were sleepless, we were tired. But sometimes being in a struggle has some good news. And the good news was that we are going towards the safe hands. As far as we kept moving from Afghanistan, that much safer we felt.”
But even now the tumult hasn’t completely subsided. His primary goals are finding work to support his family, then finding a way to reunite with his son.
Popal, Sayed, and their families are among roughly 500 Afghan refugees who have settled in the Pittsburgh region since the Taliban takeover.
Former journalist Zubair Babakarkhail has emerged as a leader among the refugee community because his career has familiarized him with western customs and he speaks proficient English. Three months after arriving in Pittsburgh, Babkarkhail was hired by the Jewish Family and Community Services to lead its outreach programming for the Afghan community.
“The main challenge is we are coming from a totally different culture and tradition, with different languages and customs and food,” said Babarkarkhail, noting many have come here from rural provinces, where electricity, phone lines and internet are inconsistent or non-existent.
On top of the technological, linguistic and cultural learning curves, Babarkarkhail said Afghans also have to adjust to the drastically different rhythms of life in America.
“They came out of the war, they have peaceful lives now,” he said. “But they have to get used to one of the busiest lives in the world – that is America, where every second is counted.”
Babarkarkhail is working to connect refugees to the services they need to rebuild and flourish here. He said most have secure access to basic food and housing, but helping them find good jobs and educational training presents a more stubborn challenge.
The majority of refugees cannot speak English, and, Babarkarkhail said, there is a shortage of language programming available, particularly for some women who feel uncomfortable participating in mixed group classes.
Like Popal, Sayed he’s itching to get to work, and, despite his training as an intelligence officer, is willing to do whatever it takes to pay the bills.
Kubra is a qualified medical doctor who also wants to go back to school to translate her credentials into the American system.
Despite the many challenges, Babakarkhail sees his kinsfolk slowly adjusting to a new life here. For now they may be saddled with needs, he said, but they also have much to contribute to their new homeland.
“Afghans, though they know nothing [about life in America] they’re trying their best to stand on their own feet,” he said. “They’re trying their best to learn, or work or make money.”