December 3, 2021

Afghan man’s family finds refuge in Claremont, ready for new opportunities

View Original Notice ? Afghan man’s family finds refuge in Claremont, ready for new opportunities

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He packed his life into a backpack as he prepared to say goodbye to the only place he’d ever called home.

Two pairs of clothes, a few photos and a bag full of gemstones — that’s all that fit in the pack. Everything else he’d worked years for — his home, the car, jewelry — he left behind.

Joined by his wife and two boys, Shabbir Waziri fled Afghanistan along with nearly 130,000 others airlifted out of Kabul as the Taliban took control of the city in August. Three months later, the 28-year-old and his family landed in the small college town of Claremont, where, he says, life is much quieter.

“No planes or loud explosions,” Waziri said on a recent sunny day a few weeks before Thanksgiving, standing alongside his sons, 5-year-old Abubakar and 8-year-old Danish. “We can get used to this.”

Thanks to the Newcomers Access Center, Waziri and his family have a new temporary home in a dorm room on the empty Claremont School of Theology campus, where the nonprofit migrant aid group is located. The school is providing refugees with furnished dorms as families working with NAC make their way to Southern California.

“There are 100 million people migrating around the world. And they’re displaced because of war, violence, and other natural disasters,” Anne Thorward, vice president of NAC’s board, said in an interview on the Claremont school campus. “If everything was peaceful and wonderful in Afghanistan, people wouldn’t leave.”

Waziri reluctantly nodded his head in agreement.

“For everyone, their countries are like a mother,” he said. “You don’t leave her behind. But this is our new home now and that means starting all over.”

Shabbir Waziri, who fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, said he considers himself “lucky” for not being separated from his wife and two young sons at the Newcomers Access Center in Claremont on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

No going back

Staying in Kabul would have been a fatal choice, Waziri said.

The Taliban would have killed him and his loved ones, he said, because he worked alongside U.S. forces in the Afghanistan capital.

On Aug. 15, Taliban fighters took control of Kabul. The takeover sparked a mass exodus of people who believed they would be in danger if they stayed, including people who worked closely with the U.S. and its allies, such as Waziri.

For the past 15 years, Waziri said, he and his father worked as shopkeeper jewelers at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, which serves as the operational command center for a NATO-led mission. That made them targets as the government began collapsing this past summer, Waziri said.

When he told his family about leaving Afghanistan, he and his mom cried for more than two hours. There was no going back, Waziri said.

“I didn’t want to leave but (the Afghan government) simply handed the Taliban the country,” he said, his voice trembling. “I can’t tell you how much stuff I lost but it was losing Afghanistan that hurt the most.”

Escaping Kabul was another tough task. Scenes of desperation played out in front of the world as Afghans tried to secure evacuation flights out of the Kabul International Airport this summer.

At the time, the Taliban said foreigners and Afghans with proper travel documents could leave. Waziri and his family were skeptical, however.

Together they stood outside the airport for a couple days until a friend helped them get inside, Waziri recalled. He showed his work badge and documentation, U.S. personnel ultimately accepted it and his family was able to get on a crowded U.S. military flight. After an overnight stop in Qatar, the family made it to the U.S. alongside thousands of other displaced Afghans.

With the help of the International Organization for Migration, which works closely with resettlement agencies, Waziri and his family stayed 45 days at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The base is one of four U.S. military facilities designated to house Afghan evacuees.

After connecting with relatives who lived in Rancho Cucamonga, Waziri said, he and his family found themselves bound for California.

Through the International Institute of Los Angeles, which supports migrants’ transition into their new lives, Thorward requested Waziri’s family be assigned to the Los Angeles area in September. Otherwise, his family would have been shuttled to a random base in the U.S., she said.

Thorward’s call made a future for his family possible, Waziri said, something he couldn’t imagine as they boarded the plane three months ago.

Anne Thorward, vice president of the board for Newcomers Access Center, is passionate about helping those in need, according to the Claremont organization’s website, on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

With open arms

The Newcomers Access Center began in Thorward’s Pomona living room five years ago to help families such as Waziri’s. Since then, the center’s reach has grown significantly, becoming a nonprofit in 2018.

The group empowers refugees and immigrant families to become independent as they establish a home for themselves in America, offering health and wellness workshops, translation services, access to employment opportunities and more.

The center currently serves about 50 families in Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Pomona, Upland and throughout the Inland region.

Those numbers may increase. About 70,000 Afghans are expected to arrive in the U.S. under Humanitarian Parole, a program that streamlines the typically lengthy visa process for non-residents in emergency situations to stay in the country for a two-year period.

Waziri said his family’s application has been approved, but officials expect the large number of Afghans arriving in the U.S. to create a backlog of applicants.

The program has been used over the past 70 years to quickly bring in people from countries where the U.S. has been involved, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia following the end of the Vietnam War.

“All refugees are immigrants but not all immigrants are refugees,” Thorward said. “Majority of the people that come as refugees (do so) because there’s trauma or violence in their own country.”

The last three months have been busy for Thorward and the center. The organization moved from an old office space at the Pomona Presbyterian Church to neighboring Claremont. Volunteers have helped clean and set up rooms for refugees in what was student housing at the School of Theology. The school has offered two apartments for temporary refugee housing.

About 25 refugees are living there temporarily, 16 of them Waziri’s family members — his parents, brothers and sisters as well as their spouses and children. The families recently reunited after months of separation, Thorward said.

To ease their transition to life in America, NAC organized a donation drive asking the community for bicycles. Since many refugees can’t legally drive, bikes help get them around town and run errands such as grocery shopping.

Meanwhile, the new NAC office offers space for a computer lab, ESL classes and more workshops, Thorward said. The center also helped connect families with English classes at the Claremont Adult School, about a mile away from their temporary home.

Waziri, who has a high school education, enrolled both of his sons in school, while he and his wife attend English classes in the morning.

After having volunteers drive Waziri and his family to classes the first two weeks after their arrival, things are about to change.

Now that he will be riding a bike to his classes, Thorward jokingly said, Waziri needs to leave 15 minutes earlier.

“You promised me your car last week, remember?” Waziri said teasingly. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”

Their banter comes easily, as though they’ve been friends for years.

“I did?” Thorward said with a grin. “I must have not written that down.”

The proof of their quickly established friendship can be found on Thorward’s right arm, adorned by a bracelet made of deep-blue lapis — a sought-after stone found in Afghanistan  — one of the few items Waziri packed when the family fled.

“I’m honored that he gave this to me,” Thorward said. “He had to see if I was good enough.”

Shabbir Waziri, a refugee from Afghanistan, right, credits Anne Thorward, vice president of the board at Newcomers Access Center, for being there for his family all hours of the day and night in Claremont on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. He arrived in America about two weeks ago with his wife and their two young sons and he’s seeking employment. He created the deep-blue semi-precious stone lapis bracelet for Thorward. The gem is from his country. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

“I’m in America now”

California, already home to the largest number of Afghan refugees in the U.S., has received an influx of evacuees following the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

More than 5,200 people are expected to make their way to the Golden State, the White House previously said. Many of those arriving in California requested to be resettled here because they have family and close friends in the state.

But the transition and road to becoming self-sufficient can be daunting, especially in a high-cost area like Southern California, said Jonathan Fung, director of legal services at the Immigration Resource Center of San Gabriel Valley.

“If you’re not working all the time, you’re not gonna be able to afford rent in LA or the IE. It’s really hard to keep up with cost of living, so most times we try not to bring them here,” Fung said.

“When I was talking to someone from Afghanistan,” Fung added, “they said ‘You never felt like you were on the verge of poverty there.’ But here is a whole different story.”

Nahla Kayali, founder and executive director of Access California Services in Anaheim, a nonprofit that serves immigrants, refugees and low-income families, said California plays a crucial role in welcoming those fleeing violence in their home countries.

“California is very generous,” Kayali said. “We’ve been more busier than ever with recent arrivals. That’s a good thing.”

Kayali agreed with Fung that cost of living is a hurdle for refugees resettling in Southern California. Her nonprofit helps provide new residents with things such as furniture, first month’s rent and even cars that have been donated.

“We have experience over the past few years, whether with Iraqi or Syrian refugees, to help with them with that transition,” Kayali said.

For Waziri, he’s looking for help applying for a work permit and later, hopefully, gaining lawful permanent status as a U.S. resident. U.S. immigration law requires refugees to apply for permanent residency after they have been physically present in the country for at least one year.

The Biden administration streamlined the process for resettlement of new Afghan refugees. It has waived costly application fees for work permits and green cards that can total more than $10,000 per family. Currently, each Afghan evacuee is expected to receive at least $1,225 to help with rent and food in the U.S.

“I’m ready to work. Maybe Tesla is hiring, who knows,” Waziri said with a grin. “I’m in America now, that’s all that matters.”

Though he’s been catapulted into a new life, Waziri said he finds solace in the possibilities his new home offers. His kids can get a quality education now, he said, while his wife can continue attending school, something the Taliban would not have permitted.

“I want my family to grow here,” Waziri said. “We want a future here, something not like Afghanistan.”

When asked if he would one day want to return to his home country, he paused and watched his sons run around.

“Of course I do, but I just don’t know when these bad things will stop in Afghanistan,” he said. “One day, maybe one day, people can relax and just be able to sleep in and not worry.”

Walking with his boys, the trio discussed which donated bike they would choose later that week. The family will be able to get around on their own now, something that hasn’t been possible for months.

There’s a halal store down the street, Waziri said, just a five-minute bike ride away from campus.

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