We have certainly learned that refugees come in waves. When LexRAP started in 2015, people were newly arriving from Iraq and Syria, as well as northern Africa. Usually, refugees reach the US several years after the violence they are fleeing has dominated our news. They wait in refugee camps for years before receiving their "Golden Ticket" to the Golden Door at which Lady Liberty holds her torch high.
This last year we have seen conflict and arrivals coincide. As Kabul fell, Afghans arrived. As the war in Ukraine raged, the US opened its doors. Most of these people did not arrive with the permanent status of "refugee" - the Biden administration gave them entry to the US as Humanitarian Parolees. They have two years to apply and get asylum in order to become permanent residents in the U.S.
One of our Iraqis called LexRAP and its families a "tribe" and the label stuck. Within the last year, LexRAP has welcomed two Afghan families and two families from Ukraine into our tribe. The adjustment has been huge for these people, as it always is, but the folks are settling in. A heartwarming story about two sisters from Afghanistan follows:
When it became clear that the Taliban were taking over, Azar*, a 21-year-old college student knew she needed to leave her home in Kabul. Her older sister, Iffat did not want to go and leave their mother behind but didn't want Azar to go alone. Things happened very quickly, and within little time they were on a bus away from all that they knew and those they loved. A few of their siblings were already in Europe and those left behind planned to include their mother in their exit plans. First stop for the sisters was Iraq, then a military base in Germany, then a base in Virginia. At both bases they stayed in vast hangers with many people. Finally, Ascentria - a resettlement agency connected them to LexRAP and they arrived in Lexington in mid -December. A family hosted them in their home.
With the takeover by the Taliban, college students in Afghanistan scattered across the globe. Bard College interestingly had had a relationship with the American University in Kabul and Azar had taken an online course at Bard. In April of last year, George Soros pledged a donation to Bard of $500 million. Bard's response to the Taliban take over was to announce that would offer 100 Afghan college students full scholarships and Azar was one of the first 33. After only about three weeks of settling into her new home in Lexington, Azar moved again to the college campus.
Iffat had an engineering degree and was interested in an MBA program. Her host family helped her apply for a program in Texas that offered her a generous scholarship. While this application process proceeded, she took an art class at LexArt in Lexington (full scholarship), swam at Hayden, and took driving lessons. The Texas program came through for a Fall start date. In the summer, Iffat had a paid internship at the Lexington Department of Public Works. She is now in Texas, with classes in full swing.
Back to the Golden Ticket. America has always been proud to be called the land of opportunity. We herald the story of Horatio Alger as our truth. In the US we don't have concrete restrictions or ceilings on employment and social status such as the House of Lords as in England or a cast society like India. However, there is no denying that in the US, it takes a lot of hard work and a good deal of luck to get ahead. The U.S. gives only three months of financial and social service support to refugees which is woefully little. Our quick message is "get to work". Coming from a different culture, speaking a different language, and often suffering trauma, it is hard to navigate how to get ahead. LexRAP's role is to help navigate and help translate cultural norms.
As Azar adjusted to life in a very liberal college, she would call me to talk. When they had a bad day, the Afghan students couldn't call back to Afghanistan because they knew those left behind were most likely having a worse day than they were. My response to Azar was often that she had to make this work, even though the adjustment was huge. Bard was most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity. Soon, Azar would repeat back to me, “Yes, I know - suck it up. Yes, I know, America is the most Darwinian country on the planet." (She had to look that up). The idiom "dog eat dog world" became part of her vocabulary. But, Azar adjusted and not only did she have a stellar Spring term and land a paid internship at Pfizer for the summer, the internship was remote and thru LexRAP connections, she spent the summer with another host family on the cape with a room overlooking the bay. Pfizer has asked her to stay on on a part time basis during the school year and is insisting she put her classes as a priority.
Our families are mostly doing very well. The children in our “tribe” are doing particularly well. As they wait for their mother's arrival, our two Afghan sisters have pushed ahead. The money they make goes into the bank since they know that they will have to extend their hand to give others in their family help when they arrive. The money to help Afghans is gone. America and perhaps the world has moved on to its next refugee crisis – Ukraine.
*Names have been changed – the sisters are still in the process of applying for asylum and some of their family remains in Afghanistan and all identities still need protection.