It was almost a year ago that Bee journalists Steve Magagnini and Paul Kitagaki Jr. set out to cover the funeral of Afghan refugee Mustafa Rafi.
The story was a grim one: Rafi brought his family from Kabul to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa granted to those whose lives were endangered because they served alongside the U.S. military. In just a matter of weeks he was killed, and his son severely injured, when a Pontiac Grand Prix crashed into them as they were riding their bikes.
Magagnini learned that Sacramento’s entire community of Afghan refugees was struggling, “especially the women, who could not speak English or drive or, in many cases, read,” he said.
A few days later, a call came and Magagnini learned another refugee who served our military, Faisal Razmal, had been attacked with a flare gun in his apartment parking lot, blinding him in one eye.
This time, Magagnini drove to the apartment complex with photographer Renée C. Byer. Byer and Kitagaki, who are married, had been talking about this community since he covered the funeral.
“We began to see that this was a powerful untold story,” Magagnini said, “about Muslim immigrants who put their lives on the line for us in the war on terror.”
Byer said she was drawn to the story to provide a voice to those who need support. “I saw this single mom now in a situation where she would have to make decisions,” who was completely unequipped to do so. “The next thing I knew Faisal was shot in the eye, and Steve and I headed out.”
These people have this idea of what America looks like, and what it might be. But the system is not set up from the moment they apply for the visa, for them to succeed.
Jessica Koscielniak, McClatchy video journalist
The two incidents spurred a team of Bee journalists to document the struggles of Sacramento’s Afghan refugees over the past year. As they worked, the national debate over immigration – particularly Muslim immigration – became heated, especially in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre committed by the son of an Afghan immigrant.
Strong voices across the country have urged that Muslim immigrants be banned from entering the United States. Absent from the debate has been discussion about those who are here because they were targeted by the Taliban for working alongside U.S. or NATO soldiers.
Magagnini and Byer, along with McClatchy video journalist Jessica Koscielniak, found that within the refugee community in Sacramento are Afghans with serious needs. Byer photographed toddlers covered head to toe with bedbug bites because the apartments are infested with bugs and cockroaches.
They learned that men and women who were professionals in Afghanistan – doctors and architects and engineers – are lucky to find minimum-wage jobs here. The documents they jammed into suitcases to show their credentials are worthless in the United States, which does not recognize much of the certification.
And, perhaps most dehumanizing for some, they learned that differences between the way in which Afghanistan issues passports, compared to the United States, mean many refugees have the wrong name on their U.S.-issued documents. Up until recently, Afghanistan did not require last names on passports. So U.S. officials treated their first name as a last name, writing in FNU (first name unknown) in legal documents. That confusion creates long waiting periods for refugees to clear up their correct legal name to obtain the paperwork necessary to get jobs, go to school, live their lives.
Koscielniak came of age during the war on terror. Sitting in her high school history class the day airplanes brought down the World Trade Center, she remembers her history teacher turned to her to say, “The world has changed forever.”
Covering this story, she said she was struck by the realization that “these people have this idea of what America looks like, and what it might be. But the system is not set up from the moment they apply for the visa, for them to succeed.”
They don’t want anything for free. They don’t want to be dependent upon the government.
Steve Magagnini, Bee reporter
Former Army intelligence officer Matt Zeller, who co-founded No One Left Behind, is passionate about improving the lives of Afghan refugees; his Afghan interpreter saved his life. “They have earned their citizenship more than most Americans ever will in their lives,” he told us.
Which raises the question: What can we as a community do to help make it easier for them to settle in Sacramento?
“They don’t want anything for free,” Magagnini said. “They don’t want to be dependent upon the government.
“They’ve already proved their worth and reliability in the war zones of Afghanistan; they just need opportunity,” he said. “They want to be a part of the fabric of American society.”
That’s why The Sacramento Bee will follow this series of stories with community discussions in partnership with the National Community and News Literacy Roundtable Project. Watch for details this coming month.
We’ll continue our reporting, as well. It can’t all be on the shoulders of Dr. Fahim Pirzada, described in our reporting as the “linchpin” of the community. He helps refugees solve problems that seem insurmountable. He provides mental health care through his nonprofit, VIRTIS. He could use some help himself.