I want to introduce you to my friend, Hamdiya.
Hamdiya is not her real name, but she’d prefer anonymity for several reasons: 1) she’s humble, 2) she’s an Afghan refugee and she’s heard people say, “Why don’t you go back to your own country?”, and 3) she knows the importance of privacy.
Hamdiya and her family are here on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because she worked for the U.S. government in Kabul. She’s among the thousands of Afghans who have put their lives on the line to help U.S. forces. When her work became too dangerous, Hamdiya and her family came to the U.S. That was five years ago. They were among the fortunate ones. Under the current U.S. administration, from FY2018 to FY2019 the number of Afghans granted these visas has dropped 60%, according to a recent National Public Radio report.
I met Hamdiya through ReEstablish Richmond. It was there that I learned a refugee is defined as someone who has been forced to leave his or her country because of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, social and/or political views. ReEstablish Richmond’s mission is helping refugees establish roots, build community and become self-sufficient. Such a well-worded, simple mission that is so complex in reality.
For some time, I’d been deeply troubled by news about the refugee crisis our world is experiencing. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with more than 68.5 million people having been forced from their homes. Nearly 25.4 million are refugees and more than half of those are younger than 18.
What took me so long to volunteer? Oh, the usual excuses. I work outside the home full-time. I have a family and obligations. Did I have time for this? Finally, I realized if I didn’t volunteer now, when was I ever going to do it?
I was a little nervous at first, but the ReEstablish Richmond training, resources and support were and continue to be outstanding. I learned about the many volunteer opportunities and decided I wanted to be a mentor. I was full of questions: Who would they pair me with? Would we be able to communicate with each other? Would I really be able to help this person?
What I learned was that all of those worries really didn’t matter. All I needed to do was be myself and to care. The experience has enriched my life beyond measure. I meet with Hamdiya for an hour each week; sometimes I try to help with paperwork, but some of my favorite times are when we just sit and talk. I learn about her life and culture, and after each visit my admiration and respect for her grows.
For instance, she tells she didn’t know how to drive before coming to the U.S. Under Taliban rule it was forbidden, and men would run women drivers off the road. Now Hamdiya helps other Afghan refugee men and women study for their driver’s licenses.
I’ve also learned about the challenges refugee mothers face. Too often they feel isolated and overwhelmed, staying home to care for children while husbands work long hours to provide for the family. The high cost of day care means it’s not an option. This makes pursuing an education, receiving training or getting a job outside the home extremely difficult. And like all moms, they worry about their kids. I’m excited that ReEstablish Richmond is starting an Afghan Wellness Group to provide some support for these women.
It’s in all of our best interests to work to support refugees, starting with the moms, to promote healthy families, help achieve dreams of self-sufficiency and a provide a better future for us all. Wouldn’t it be great if every refugee family had a mentor? In the meantime, whether it’s through a smile, conversation, donation or volunteering, we all can do more to welcome our newest neighbors.