Trading Places

Trading Places

An Afghan immigrant is giving back to the community that helped him start a new life

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Mohammed now spends his days helping needy local residents, including recent immigrants. Photo by Skip Brown.

Mohammed emigrated from Afghanistan three years ago and now advises church volunteers who help resettle newcomers from his native country. He tells them, for example, that when you greet a family at the airport, you should bring food from a well-known Afghan restaurant that is “halal,” which means permissible under Islamic law. “If they don’t know where it is coming from, they’re not going to eat that,” he explains.

Another warning: Men should not try to shake hands with a woman. “These Afghan women were raised in a society where they were not exposed to men at all,” he says. “They fear men.”

Mohammed works as a case manager for ResCare, a company which has a contract with Montgomery County to provide job training and counseling services for needy local residents, including recent immigrants. His volunteer work with the church reflects his desire to give back to a community that has offered him a new life.

“The volunteerism that is here probably you cannot find anywhere else,” he tells me over tea at Kaldi’s Social House, a popular café in downtown Silver Spring, a few blocks from where he lives with his wife and 7-year-old son. “Everyone is trying to help each other. I was so impressed with this when we first moved here.”

Mohammed, now 34, only wants his first name used because he still fears for his relatives’ safety back in Afghanistan, and with good reason. His grandfather was a commander in the mujahideen, guerrilla fighters who battled Soviet occupiers and their puppet government in the 1980s. When Mohammed was less than a year old, his entire family fled to the Pakistani city of Quetta, where he spent his youth. He returned to Afghanistan in 2004 at age 19, where he worked for the United Nations and several nonprofits, mainly helping farmers replace opium with other crops.

When he took a similar job with the United States consulate in the city of Herat, the threats began. One man from his hometown warned: “I don’t want to harm you, but if I have to, I will definitely do that for the sake of making Allah happy. You are getting too close to the infidels, you have to stop working for the U.S. government.”

Mohammed refused—“I am helping my people,” he told his harassers—but in 2011, his 10-year-old brother was kidnapped by a criminal gang allied with the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement. The gang demanded a ransom of $3 million and said, “You’re working for the U.S. government—they should be paying for this.” The U.S. generally does not pay ransoms, however, and after three months of exhausting negotiations, Mohammed turned over his life savings—he declines to say the exact amount—and his brother was released unharmed.

But the threats continued—his car was shot up and he barely escaped by speeding away—and eventually he decided to emigrate under a special program that provides visas for local nationals who worked for America in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the family finally arrived here in March 2016, however, all did not go well.

An unscrupulous landlord wouldn’t fix a broken refrigerator or provide air conditioning. Mohammed’s wife, who doesn’t want her name used, knew little English and felt isolated. His son “was crying every single day when he woke up” and asking, “Why are we here? Everyone is supposed to be in their own country.” A fire broke out in their apartment when the batteries in a laptop exploded. “The only thing that I could save was my underwear, one of my T-shirts, and my phone,” Mohammed recalls.

Slowly, however, life got better. A Wider Circle, a charitable organization based in Silver Spring, provided a mattress for the couple to sleep on in their new apartment. Mohammed’s wife began English classes and found a job at an Asian restaurant, where she is now the assistant manager. The family connected with other Afghan emigres through local mosques and a market in Alexandria, Virginia, where they buy “a lot of Afghan stuff” including halal meat.

As their fortunes improved, so did their commitment to the community. Mohammed and his wife decided to warn people about the dangers of overheated computers, and on many Sundays they drop by a church, a mosque or another gathering place and ask to speak for a few minutes. “We tell them, ‘We’re not here to sell anything, but we’re letting you know what happened to us,’ ” he says.  “ ‘Be cautious. Don’t go to bed when the computer is still on.’ ”

Mohammed had trouble finding a job after he first arrived in the U.S., and when counselors advised him to start at McDonald’s, he objected. “No, I don’t want to start with McDonald’s,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s, but I have better skills than that.” His persistent networking eventually landed him his current job, and instead of holding an office holiday party, Mohammed convinced more than a dozen of his colleagues to spend the day volunteering at A Wider Circle. “We went all together, we really enjoyed it,” he recalls.

Like most immigrants, Mohammed remains torn between two worlds. He still calls his mother regularly back in Afghanistan and pays the school fees for his six younger sisters. He is part of “the sacrifice generation,” as one Vietnamese refugee once told me, that move to a new country for the sake of their children. “My son is growing up, and I don’t want him to suffer what I have suffered,” Mohammed says. “I want him to grow up in a society where he could be independent, where he could take decisions for himself.”

Mohammed, too, can now decide things for himself. And he’s decided to help make his new home a better place.


Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His book, From Every End of This Earth, is about recent immigrants to America. This column was suggested by a reader. Send ideas for future columns to srob erts@gwu.edu.

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