Holding on to hope: a story of despair and love born out of Afghanistan
Rozelyn and Nabeed are both refugees from Afghanistan who recently were resettled into a crowded apartment complex in one of the poorer neighborhoods of South Central San Diego. They share a son, a life-filled jubilant 4 year old who literally has twinkles in each of his eyes. Rozelyn, fluent in English, shared with me a few months ago that she and her husband Nabeed were looking for work. They desperately needed jobs. As someone who works to find refugees employment, I shared with her a few of my most recent job leads.
One of them had great promise in landing in employment, however she rejected each one.
Initially I was frustrated. When a person says they desperately need work, when they call me and leave messages of "Please help, help me, help me we need work" I expect them to compromise. I wasn't sending her to a strip club, or a Port-a-Potty cleaning crew, it was a nice solid full-time position as a caregiver.
"Miss Kacie, I can't do that. I am sorry."
I spoke with her a few more times all of which held the exact same result. She would respectfully decline but offer no reason when I asked. I decided she was not ready for a job developer, that any help I could give her she was not willing to receive, so I crossed her name off my list, never input her in to the system, and moved on.
Rozelyn and Nabeed happen to live next door to one of my clients, a man from Sierra Leone who was in need of work boots. Just as I was dropping off the goods and leaving his house I noticed their son Fazel leaned in their doorway smiling at me. I walked over to him and ruffled his hair while he grabbed my leg and hugged it tight.
"Hey you." I said, tickling his sides.
He ran in to the apartment.
Rozelyn was inside cooking lunch, and on their small round dining room table lay a spread of food that looked as if it had taken quite a lot of time to prepare.
"Oh hello Miss Kacie. It is so nice to see you." She smoothed her coarse hair and extended her hand offering me a seat on their couch. Her son ran over and pounced on my lap.
"Fazel!" she chided.
"It's okay. I don't mind."
"Oh I am so sorry Miss Kacie, he has so much energy you know! I am sorry. Please make yourself comfortable. Can I offer you some tea?"
"Yes please." I said.
"Or will you stay for lunch? It is almost ready. Oh I hope you will stay for lunch."
She opened the stove and hot air escaped past her face and above. It smelled of meat and onions and it was lunchtime and I was hungry.
"Yes I'd love to have lunch with you."
"Oh wonderful Miss Kacie wonderful. Nabeed he is not home but anytime now he will come back. Faxel!" She spoke rapidly in Arabic and then turned to me, batting her eyelashes and smiling. After each reprimand he would creep off my lap but slowly return while his mother tended to the big boiling pot.
"Your apartment looks great." I said.
"Oh do you like it? Everything is other peoples trash!" She clasped her hands together and moved through the room pointing out everything she had salvaged from the dumpster outside. "That is how it is here. Our monthly check is very small, we get about $750, rent is $550, and gas, electricity and groceries, and laundry detergent- you see? Life is very difficult so I cannot go and buy things to make my house look beautiful. But I love decorations. In Afghanistan I had a lot of money Miss Kacie. And here I do what I can."
Nabeed walked in smoking a cigarette and gently bowed his head to offer me a hello. His thick black feather eyelashes glanced in Rozelyn's direction and he gave her a loving smile. Fazel ran to him and jumped around his legs, while his father flicked his ears and tried to hide from his son's constant swivel.
"Lunch is ready!" She said.
They didn't have enough chairs to accommodate my dropping in, so Fazel regrettably had to sit at the couch and eat his meal. He kept peering over and asking me questions, so his father finally gave in and made a makeshift seat where he was able to dine with the grown-ups.
So much trust can be built over something as simple as a meal. I sometimes feel conflicted when I accept an offer to eat with my clients. I have so much fun doing it, and it usually lasts longer than my mandated 1 hour lunch. But the information, the stories, the understanding I receive far surpasses anything I could get in my office. Therefore, I have unofficially written "family meals" into my job description.
On this day what I was learning was the complexity behind the trauma this family had experienced in Afghanistan. And what had first appeared to me as laziness or pickiness, neither of them accepting my job leads, was actually something much more.
I wanted to know how they met, so I asked between bites and she put down her fork and told me the story.
Rozelyn and Nabeed were family friends and had known each other their entire lives. Both had a strong attraction towards one another, and decided to marry despite the fact that as they matured they came to believe in different religions. "Nabeed is the sweetest, most gentle man I know. He knows my heart. We are okay that we have different religions because we trust one another with everything."
Christians are heavily persecuted in Afghanistan. Nabeed, driven by love and sustained by his Muslim faith, had risked quite a lot in asking her to marry him. Rozelyn, with her devotion to Jesus and married to a Muslim man, was now a wife with a bulls eye on her forehead.
"We would go to the grocery store and men would walk by me and whisper that they were going to kill me, because they knew I was a Christian."
She lived in constant fear, but in Nabeed she found rest. They continued to live under verbal threats or dodging actual bullets occasionally shot through their house.
"My people, they have black hearts. There is something wrong in Afghanistan and it is in their hearts." She continued to live, and work, and love. And soon enough, she was pregnant.
Four months after Fazel was born the front part of their house was destroyed by gunshots. She was asleep with her baby in the back when it happened. She and Nabeed were so terrified they did not leave their house. The fear sat in their stomachs and leaked into their bones. Rozelyn found she could no longer produce breastmilk but did not feel safe leaving their house, so she fed her baby water mixed with sugar for over a week.
"The doctor told me I had become too fearful to make breastmilk, so we wanted to move to go someplace safe. But then that is when they kidnapped Fazel."
Their son was taken from them for over two weeks, while messages relayed from a murderous tag team only solidified that their future remain very uncertain. "He was very young and he needed to be fed. The kidnappers called me and asked if I wanted him to live. They said they weren't feeding him anything, and if I wanted Fazel to eat I should send some money."
Miraculously Fazel was returned, and on the night they had planned their escape, Nabeed was dragged from inside his house and beaten outside.
I looked at him eating the french fries, smiling at his son, stiffly turning his body and reaching for a second helping. He held the scars from that day, not in his face- or his eyes- or his soft easy smile, but his body was unnaturally erect as if someone had slipped a wood board down his shirt. They said that his neck and spine were damaged and he moved in small calculated doses.
"The bad men told Nabeed that if he did not divorce me the very next day they were going to kill me and kill Fazel." They packed up their things that night and left while it was still black out. "We had money, and before the war we were very comfortable, but now it is very different. Can you imagine Miss Kacie?"
After safely arriving in Syria, and spending eight months trying to gain status as refugees and begin a new life in a new land, they landed in San Diego. I asked them how they like it here.
"It is a nice place. It is safe. But I am sorry, I cannot talk to these other Afghan people here. I cannot look at them. I cannot make friends with them. I do not trust them." I did not feel it was my place to remind her many of them had been through similar traumas.
She went on to tell me that she never leaves her son alone, there is always one pair of protective eyes on him. "When he is sleeping, I stay up and watch him. After four hours, Nabeed will wake up and I will sleep. That is how we live."
It dawned on me that all the jobs I referred her to required overnights.
The dark circles under her eyes now held a reason, and the general nervousness that leapt off her every pore was rooted in an awful reality. Despite it all, their battered bodies and their wearied souls, their love for each other and for their son was easily felt.
"Fazel is our hope. We are tired Miss Kacie, very tired. This life has been very difficult and terrible but we look at Fazel and we know it is good."
Each time I cleared my plate of food a large spoon dangled above it and dropped another load of salad, french fries, or a portion of a strange (to me) meatloaf looking dish. Nabeed would laugh and point at my stomach, motioning for me to fill it up. I wondered if he knew the story his wife was telling, as he hadn’t yet learned English. I sensed he did, that it was now as much of a part of them as their breath itself.
I asked Fazel if he had made any friends in the complex and he gave a little nod. "Oh really?"
"What's your friends name?"
He smiled, looked at his mom and dad, and through the gap in his front tooth, his little pink tongue spun around in circles and said "Thu-thu-thuthu-thu!"
I thought he was speaking Arabic, so I asked his mom to translate. She laughed and said she had no idea what he was talking about, so I asked again.
He kicked his legs under the table excitedly and tried to share a second time. Small sounds began to emerge and resemble something that sounded like Spanish.
After a group effort of trying to figure it out, we asked "Is it Jose Salazar!"
He jumped from his chair and danced around the table. "Yes! Huh-thu-thuthu-thal!"
His mother explained to his father, in Arabic, about the confusion that just took place, and we shared a communal laugh as we watched the space between the teeth fill up with Fazel's wild twirling tongue.
We didn't return to the story she had been telling before, instead we moved on and let the refreshing antics of an inspiring 4 year old cheer us on into another chapter of the day, and another chapter of their future.
*This is a story I wrote in June 2009, when I worked as a job developer at a refugee resettlement agency. Names and certain details have been changed to protect identity. I am posting it in light of the recent events in Afghanistan, and in hopes that telling their story can be helpful in humanizing their struggle in some way.