The Journey: From Kabul to Chicago
Every week I visit Sameer Shahab and his family, refugees from Afghanistan in their modest, basement apartment nestled within the side streets off of Devon, with it’s constant bustling of Muslim immigrants, bright lights, and the wafting of sweet Indian spices. As we sit down in their living room, he gently folds his hands in lap and tells me stories of his past life growing up in a war torn country. I wonder what else must be going through his head, just a month ago he was a translator for the U.S Army, putting his life at risk for his family while being hunted down by the Taliban.
“We were so scared, we didn’t know why someone would be throwing eggs at our window, we were just sitting in this room talking at night when it happened. We thought it was the Taliban, that they had followed us from Afghanistan” recalled Sameer father of two and husband. The weekend before Halloween, with the shouting kids, teenagers smashing pumpkins, throwing eggs and loud music had brought back fresh memories of life in war-torn Kabul.
Lucky for me, as a volunteer with Loyola Refugee Outreach, he invites me over once a week where I’m able to sit and talk with him, devour rich homemade Afghan meals prepared by his wife Shazia, play with his two young children Balal and Ayesha, and listen for endless hours of his journey from Kabul to Chicago; he wants me to write a book of his journey, as I’m one of the only American friends he has and humbles me by his faith in my writing.
According to Patrick Curran, who set me up as a volunteer with the Shahab family and Youth Refugee Worker at Catholic Charities, “The most common misconception around refugees is that people think they are helpless. Refugees are survivors. They escaped persecution based on their ethnicity, war or religion. They are not helpless people, they are just in an extremely vulnerable situation; it’s important to remember this distinction.”
Sam, the soldier
Sameer is not a typical refugee; he worked as a translator to the U.S Army for over 10 years, during the war, as an Afghan citizen. “ All of the American soldiers would call me Sam.” He recalls being trained as a soldier and interrogator for a division of soldiers from the Midwest area. He led them into many Taliban infested areas, putting his life at risk everyday for his family and freedom. He waited for over two years to have his green card processed so that way his family could flee the country and the risks they were exposed due to his involvement in the war against the Taliban.
“That is why we came here, we were not refugees like others, we were granted special permission because the Taliban was after me and my family for my work during the war” said the 27-year-old.
More than 30,000 Afghan citizens filed for political asylum abroad in 2011, according to UN statistics. This figure indicates a 25 percent increase over the same period in 2012.
In fact, the number of people fleeing Afghanistan has tripled since four years ago despite the international community pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan to boost the economy, rebuild infrastructure and protect against a Taliban-led insurgency as the 2014 NATO Troop withdrawals draws near.
Life before in Afghanistan
Sameer Shahab was born into a war. “ My entire life has just been me and my family trying to survive wars” he recalled while flipping through an old binder of photos he has from Afghanistan. “ I remember when I was seven years old, during the civil war we stayed in my basement for two months because of the fighting. It was winter, and we ran out of wood to burn, so my brother wanted to put my shoes in the oven, but my mother stopped him from going outside. A minute later a rocket hit my backyard and my whole house shook, windows shattered, doors fell. There was so much dust we couldn’t see anything but we had no scratches on us, if my brother would have gone he would be dead.”
Struggling for a new life
It’s been a different type of struggle since September 2012 when the Shahab family arrived in Chicago. They received help from an organization called, Catholic Charities which helps refugees in the Chicago area by providing them with free housing for the first three months after their arrival, food stamps, and a small stipend until they are able to find jobs. These financial benefits are short lived and the Shahab’s were forced to acclimate quickly.
Even to this day in December, Sameer is struggling to find a job that will pay enough for rent, food and eventually his son Balal who is turning five needs to start pre-school so he can learn English and get out of the house, says Sameer.
When I first started to visit, Shazia was always dressed in a long dress and Hijab, her English limited to simple phrases, rarely making eye contact.
However now she has warmed up to our presence and even last week she had Sameer translate and asked us when we were getting married, that we were getting old.
“Language barrier is a major challenge for refugees. Refugees seem to feel very distant from everyone in a society that is based around the English language. It’s difficult to connect with Americans for them, and almost impossible to find a high paying job ” stated Curran.
Sameer translates for us frequently, and told us once, “At the end of the day whenever we sit and talk, she always tells me, I would rather be back in Kabul, dirt poor but with my family and people who understand me here it’s not what I thought, life is so hard for us and our future is so uncertain.”
I will never forget the first thing that the Shahab family told me a few months ago the day we met. They graciously welcomed me into their home and told me that it was such a great honor to have someone of high education in their home.