Afghan refugees in Dayton: ‘Where no one will torture me for what I believe and how I dress’

Selin Hussain Zada at refugee from Afghanistan, moved into her apartment in Kettering around a month ago. Zada has two collage degrees and is looking forward to a great life in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

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Selin Hussain Zada at refugee from Afghanistan, moved into her apartment in Kettering around a month ago. Zada has two collage degrees and is looking forward to a great life in Dayton. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

The region is now home to 136 who fled the Taliban and are assisted by the community.

Selin Hussainzada faced an excruciating dilemma last year at the gates of the Kabul International Airport, one that would eventually bring her to a new life in Dayton.

With the help of a French journalist, Hussainzada had miraculously reached the French checkpoint; her parents and brothers remained a short but immeasurable distance behind her. As she turned back for them, her parents shouted, “Don’t come back!” and French soldiers warned, “If you go back, you won’t have another chance to get in.”

She obeyed her parents, and made the gut-wrenching choice to leave her homeland without them. In late December, Hussainzada became one of 136 Afghan refugees who have resettled to the Dayton area with the assistance of Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, the Welcome Dayton initiative and a network of volunteers.

They face unique challenges due to the sudden fall of the government in Afghanistan, experts said, and the multiple stops on the route to resettlement.

“The evacuation was very abrupt, and the refugees were scattered to military bases across the country,” local Catholic Social Services CEO Laura Roesch said. “They have the trauma of being displaced twice.”

Molly Brunk, director of the Be Hope Immigration Center in Beavercreek, concurred.

“They are reeling from the panic of fleeing the country, and the immediate need to get out of there. They arrive on U.S. soil, and they don’t feel settled; they can’t completely let their guard down. From our perspective they are here and they are safe, but for a lot of them, the battle has just begun.”

Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, the local resettlement organization, greets the refugees at the airport and sets them up in a furnished apartment or extended-stay hotel. After an Initial trauma assessment, refugees are connected to community resources such as employment assistance, acculturation classes and referrals to language programs and medical services.

“We may be the first stop, but we rely on many, many other partners and systems in our community,” Roesch said. “True resettlement takes a long time and a whole community working together.”

‘Go to Dayton’

During her four months at a military base in New Jersey, Hussainzada asked a colleague from Kabul, former Dayton attorney Tom Kramer, where she should settle in the United States.

“Go to Dayton,” he urged her. “I have lots of friends there.”

Kramer’s longtime friend Amy Forsthoefel of Dayton has taken Hussainzada under her wing. She connected her with immigration attorneys and helped her find an apartment in Kettering, which is being paid for by Catholic Social Services.

“I’m a feminist, and Selin hits a soft spot for me,” Forsthoefel reflected. “She was on track to make a difference in her country, and then she had to flee. I feel for her. She has a strong sense of justice, and she wanted to do something for the people of her country.”

Having connections in Dayton made a tremendous difference, Hussainzada said: “It made me feel more safe and not very alone, knowing there are people here who know the people I know.”

Hussainzada is settling comfortably into the sunny apartment in Kettering and starting a new job with a translation service. She’s thinking about enrolling at the University of Dayton School of Law to pursue her interrupted dream of becoming a lawyer. But even as she savors her newfound freedom, Hussainzada worries about the family she left behind and thinks constantly about bringing them to the United States.

“It was so difficult,” she said. “I was leaving my life, my dreams, and the warmth of my house and my work and my family and friends.”

Yet remaining in Afghanistan would have been stifling for the 25-year-old who had a promising career with a law firm and was on the verge of taking the equivalent of the bar exam in Afghanistan. “I was thinking I would never be able to leave my house, and I could not dress how I wanted,” she said.

Before the Taliban takeover, women enjoyed relatively equal educational opportunities in Kabul, Hussainzada said. “There were no legal or written barriers against girls’ education or work or appearance, but there were some cultural barriers,” she said. “I was blessed to be in a very open-minded family who were not against girls getting an education. They told me I could do anything I wanted to do.”

Hussainzada even took the unusual step of renting an apartment.

“My parents were hiding that I was not living at home, because of the stigma,” she said.

Her parents fled Afghanistan during the civil war, settling in Iran, where Hussainzada was born and spent her early childhood. Her family moved back to their home country in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban.

”With the United States there, everyone thought it was safe again,” she said.

Hussainzada couldn’t bear returning to the repressive form of government her family had escaped so many years earlier.

“I just have the chance of living once,” she said. “I have my own ideas and thoughts. Why should I live by their standards and their norms?”

She also feared becoming a target of the Taliban for a variety of reasons — as a graduate of the American University of Afghanistan, as a lawyer in training, and as a member of the Hazara ethnic group, part of the persecuted Shia religious minority.

“I have heard many stories of Hazara women being raped and killed,” she said. “My family misses me a lot, but they are happy I am not in Afghanistan.”

Welcoming spirit of Dayton

After getting the word out that Hussainzada needed furnishings for her apartment, Forsthoefel was flooded with donations — a new mattress, a kitchen table and chairs, a love seat.

“With everything going on in the world, it feels good to help someone else,” Forsthoefel said. “Everybody stepped up.”

Such hospitality is in the spirit of the Welcome Dayton plan adopted by Dayton City Commission in 2011, according to Jeannette Horwitz, the Welcome Dayton coordinator for the city’s Community Engagement Division.

“People are always calling and emailing us, asking how they can help or simply being concerned about an individual or a family they have met, and that says something about Daytonians,” Horwitz said.

In February, Welcome Dayton hosted a meeting with community members helping Afghan families to share resources, brainstorm ideas and compare what other cities are doing.

“I sense a genuine willingness to help, and it’s just great when individuals reach out asking what they can do and how to be involved,” Horwitz said.

It would be hard to find a better example than Susan Marticello of Beavercreek. She is known as “Mama Susan” to an extended family of Afghan refugees — 22 in all — who moved to the Dayton area recently to join other family members who had emigrated five years earlier.

“I thought I was past homework and parent-teacher conferences, but now I am back into it,” she said.

Her involvement began after her former husband, to whom she was married at the time, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. Upon returning to Ohio, he helped his interpreter to complete the necessary paperwork for entry into the U.S.

“The interpreter stayed with us and started calling me his American mom,” Marticello recalled.

When the situation in Afghanistan became dire last year, the interpreter used his connections to bring his extended family to safety. The interpreter worked with his contacts on the ground to get his family safely through the the treacherous airport gate a day before a deadly suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport Aug. 26.

“It was partly luck, as well as answered prayers and the interpreter’s network of people,” Marticello said.

After an initial stay in Germany, the families resettled in Dayton 100 days later. Marticello said she has worked closely with Catholic Social Services to help them find housing, connect with resources and enroll children in school. The organization provides a critical service, she noted, “but it’s important that we have people in the community who can bridge the gap.”

During weeknights Marticello can usually be found tutoring the 10-year-old or reviewing World War II history with the 10th-graders. She has learned not to visit more than two of the four Fairborn households in one evening.

“They have such great hospitality,” Marticello said. “They want to make you tea, and they want to feed you.”

It’s an example of the way that community members receive as much as they give when they reach out to refugee families, she said: “My life is filled with this family.”

Faith groups bridge the gap

Be Hope Church in Beavercreek is one of many religious organizations rising up to meet the need of refugees in our region. The mission statement of the Be Hope Immigration Center is “to empower the immigrant community in Dayton and partner with existing agencies to strengthen the immigrant service network.”

Director Molly Brunk coordinates the work of a small staff and 35 volunteers to assist refugees with legal paperwork, green card applications, and the process of gaining citizenship.

‘’Paperwork may be lost or delayed, and they need people to explain the legal system and provide reassurance if things are taking a little bit of time,” Brunk said. “We do what we can, and we advocate for them.”

Their work with refugees is very much in keeping with church values, Brunk said: “We see this as a way of building the kingdom of God. It’s neat to see how love prevails over a lot of differences. When you get to know people and sit across from them, those differences fade away. You have to truly know them in order to love them and to serve them.”

For more than 60 years, Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley has helped to resettle refugees from all over the world, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It’s a beautiful fit for our mission of caring for people who are vulnerable,” Roesch said. “To welcome the stranger is part of the call of the church. And the refugees are a cultural and economic asset to our community. They are hard-working, and their retention and success in the workplace is exceptional.”

The need won’t go away any time soon. Roesch is waiting, in fact, to learn whether her organization will receive a formal request to resettle Ukrainian refugees in the Dayton area. “If we are called upon, we will make a decision based on an assessment of our community capacity and organizational capacity,” she said.

New land, new dreams

Hussainzada had always planned to come to the United States — but as an international student, not as a refugee.

Life remains grim for friends who have remained behind, especially women. “Anyone who has ideas or lifestyles that are against Taliban rules lives in fear of being persecuted,” Hussainzada said. “The women who are demonstrating against the Taliban are all in fear of imprisonment, torture and even death.”

Her focus now remains twofold: becoming a lawyer in the United States and bringing her family to America. She talks to her parents every day.

“They are afraid, and they are hopeless, and they are trying to leave Afghanistan,” she said. “But under the new laws under the Taliban, no one is allowed to leave without a medical emergency.”

Hussainzada harbors no resentment against the United States for the final troop withdrawal.

“The U.S. could have handled the evacuation process a little better, but I don’t blame them for what they have done,” she said. “I blame our politicians who left Afghanistan and left the people in the hands of the Taliban.”

She is, instead, grateful to the American people for the new future she is forging.

“I always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, a person who advocates for others, and now I will be doing that here in the U.S.,” she said. “The U.S. is a good country, a country where I can be whatever I want, a country where no one will torture me for what I believe and how I dress. Whatever dream I have for my life, in the United States I can have that dream come true.”


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The Dayton Daily News reported last month on the economic impact of immigrants on Montgomery County. At noon Wednesday, April 13, immigration and refugees will be the topic of our next monthly Community Conversation series, hosted live on our Facebook page.

How to help:

Local organizations are looking for donations and volunteers. Here is where to reach out.

Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley:

www.cssmv.org

937-223-7217

Be Hope Immigration Center

https://behopeic.org/

937-810-0206

Furniture donations:

Contact St. Vincent de Paul to arrange pick up of donated furniture, specifying the resettlement program https://stvincentdayton.org/donations/

How to go:

What: An Afghan Welcome Event hosted by Welcome Dayton, Dayton Metro Library and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Local businesses will be on hand to discuss employment opportunities. A resources table will connect participants with local resources.

When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 16

Where: Downtown branch of the Dayton Metro Library

For more information: Email WelcomeDayton@daytonohio.gov.