More than 200 people attended a forum Wednesday evening to discuss how to ease the transition to life in Sacramento for Afghans arriving here on Special Immigrant Visas.
The forum was co-sponsored by The Sacramento Bee. It is the first in a series of three community events aiming to inform the public and improving the lives of Special Immigrant Visa holders.
The visas are awarded to people who served the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan, along with their immediate family members. California has received more of these newcomers than any other state, and Sacramento County – with 2,000 recent arrivals and more on the way – has more than any other county in California.
A June special report in The Bee, “No Safe Place,” chronicled the hardships they have endured in Sacramento, where they have often been placed in substandard housing infested with bedbugs and roaches. People who worked as translators, engineers and doctors for the United States in Afghanistan have found they can land little but minimum-wage work here and are mired in poverty. Some have been the victims of violent crime.
A central figure in the Bee series, and in Wednesday’s forum, was Faisal Razmal, a former translator who worked for the U.S. Army and survived life-threatening situations in Afghanistan, only to get shot in the eye with a flare gun during a robbery attempt outside his Arden Arcade apartment complex.
Razmal said he continues to struggle with the aftermath of his injury. Sacramento County’s Victim Witness Assistance Program has taken charge of his rehabilitation and is helping him find a job, he said.
Another panelist, 27-year-old Rawash Yar, served as an interpreter for the Bee series and has been working with Malalai Rafi, whose husband, Mustafa, died when he was struck by a car just weeks after the family arrived in the United States. Her son Omar was critically injured.
Yar, a UC Davis graduate, was born in Afghanistan and came to the United States when she was 9 years old. She said Afghan women face particular difficulties. Unlike their husbands, who often served as interpreters for the U.S. military, many of the women do not speak English. Malalai Rafi suddenly found herself the head of her household, but without a command of English or the ability to provide financially for her children.
“In Afghanistan, the roles of men and women are a lot more traditional,” Yar said. “Women are the domestic goddesses of the home, whereas the men are the sole providers.”
Nematullah Sarvary, an Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holder, said he anticipated some difficulties transitioning to Western culture. He said he focused on himself first, then began working to help his wife and children and found they were able to adjust far more quickly than he did.
He said his wife is embracing new opportunities, and he recognizes her ability to contribute to the family in ways she might not have been able to before.
“Now she can be one of your arms, and she can assist you,” he said.
The federal government allots $1,125 per person in resettlement aid, a sum critics say is inadequate. Much of that money is spent by the refugee agencies to prepay rent and buy furniture and supplies for families before they arrive.
Earlier this week, The Bee reported that Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has asked the federal Government Accountability Office to examine the Afghan refugee resettlement process and how it could be improved.
Wednesday’s forum was part of The National Community and News Literacy Roundtables Project, an effort launched by the American Society of News Editors with help from the American Press Institute and The News Literacy Project. The project is funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.