No safe place

Malalai Rafi

Photos reveal heartbreak and despair of new widow’s American life


Malalai Rafi and her children grieve  at the Greater Sacramento Muslim Cemetery in December 2015. They lost Mustafi Rafi, husband and father, July 12, 2015, just after arriving in the U.S. on a Special Immigrant Visa. He was killed biking with his son Omar, 8. Omar was gravely  injured. He was released from the hospital in October, and, here, joins his siblings – Saleha,12, Omran, 7,  and Maryam, 13. He wears a helmet to protect  his head, and copes – he was told of his father’s death just days before.


Maryam Rafi, 13, holds a family photograph showing herself with her arms wrapped around her father Mustafa Rafi, with her sister Saleha at right and brothers Omar and Omran in front, in a park in Afghanistan before their move to the U.S.

Maryam Rafi says her evening prayers as her mother, Malalai Rafi, 36, continues to mourn nearly a month after the July 12, 2015 death of her husband, Mustafa Rafi, 35. Malalai Rafi  became her family's only provider and decision-maker, a role she feels ill-equipped to handle because she has little education or knowledge of English, and comes from a culture where women are subservient.

Malalai Rafi watches over her son Omar, 8, in the recovery room at UC Davis Children’s Hospital after his cranioplasty surgery on Aug. 13, 2015.  Doctors tried to replace the piece of skull they had taken from his head. The operation wasn’t successful; Omar’s skull would not be repaired until nearly a year later, in May 2016.

Omar looks up at his mother while in the recovery room at UC Davis Children’s Hospital after his cranioplasty surgery on Aug. 13, 2015. Omar went through several surgeries at UC Davis Children’s Hospital as the family struggles to survive without their father. Mustafa Rafi was an engineer and interpreter working with the U.S. Army and was granted a Special Immigrant Visa after he was threatened by the Taliban in Afghanistan for working with the U.S. armed forces.

Mustafa Rafi wanted his children to succeed in school in the U.S. “He said he wanted to focus on our kids’ education as well as his dream of getting a master’s degree,” said his wife, Malalai. “I wasn't afraid. I was thinking America’s a safe place.” The family lives across the street from where Mustafa was killed. On the same morning Omar had cranioplasty surgery, Saleha Rafi, 12, leaves Skyview Villa for her first day of school at Arcade Fundamental Middle School.

Maryam Rafi, 13, left, and her sister Saleha Rafi, 12, right, begin their first day at Arcade Fundamental Middle School. The teacher could not speak Farsi, their native Afghan language, but the sisters were happy to be able to speak to one another.

Omar Rafi awoke, unable to comprehend what had happened to him. A piece of skull was missing from the right side of his head, where there was a crescent-shaped incision. UC Davis physical therapist Heather Martine watches Omar work on an iPad at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

UC Davis physical therapist Heather Martine places a protective helmet on Omar Rafi to prepare him for an occupational therapy session at UC Davis Children’s Hospital in September. As a result of his brain injury, Omar’s behavior swung wildly. Sometimes he would be gentle and caring. Other times, he would bite, spit or hit the doctors and nurses.

Omar Rafi progresses in physical therapy at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. Therapists used a football, games and puzzles to help him work on his motor skills. Formerly a good student, he studied English on an iPad.

Omar Rafi has brain damage from the accident, but the doctors are not able to determine to what extent. As he recovers, he can talk and be extremely polite and other times he becomes frustrated and acts aggressively toward the staff.

Saleha Rafi uses a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner she borrowed in their Skyview Villa apartment as Omar’s green bicycle sits just inside the front door. Sometimes his sisters ride it, making sure to strap on their helmets. Their mother spent every day in September at UC Davis Children’s Hospital by Omar’s bedside. The driver of the car who hit Omar and his father had not been charged.

After vacuuming the apartment, Saleha Rafi jumps on the couch underneath a heart made of tinsel. “The apartment complex manager doesn’t allow us to hang anything on the walls,” said Saleha. “He said we can’t put (in) nails and make holes on the walls,” said Maryam Rafi, as she entered the kitchen to prepare lunch. The girls tended the apartment as their mother sat at Omar’s bedside. Malalai Rafi often took Omran, 7, with her to UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

Maryam Rafi, right, shares a lunch of eggs and naan, a traditional Afghan bread, with her sister Saleha. The girls spent many hours alone in their locked apartment with the blinds drawn waiting for their mother to return from the hospital. Malalai Rafi struggles with English. After several weeks – and many missed connections – she learned how to take the bus to UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

“When my dad was here, he would have all the blinds and windows open, but now we don’t do that,” said Maryam Rafi. “Our blinds are usually closed now because we don’t feel safe.” Her mother, Malalai, made an arrangement while she was out: If the kids needed help, she told them to stomp their feet three times on the floor to alert the downstairs neighbor.

“I take better care of this doll than I do myself. It’s a very special gift,” says Maryam Rafi as she cuddles an American doll that was a gift from her father. Omar used to sleep in the bunk beneath her and would push her mattress up with his feet, annoying her. “So I would yell at him,” she recalled. “Now that I look back on it, I wouldn’t yell at him.”

Saleha Rafi, who shares a bedroom with her three siblings, reaches under her covers to display a photograph of her deceased father, Mustafa Rafi. Her brother Omar had been at at UC Davis Children’s Hospital since July 12, suffering from a head injury. “He doesn’t know he’s in the hospital,” she said. “We tell him one day and the next day he forgets.”

A day before Omar Rafi’s release in mid-October from UC Davis Children’s Hospital, Malalai, who speaks little English, tries to communicate with hospital staff regarding her son. Omar had undergone several surgeries over the past three months. The hospital staff recorded his mother’s voice in Farsi so he could hear her while she was away.

Omar Rafi shows signs of fatigue upon his return home on Oct. 14, 2015, after three months recovering at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. Nematullah Sarvary helps Omar into his wheelchair in the parking lot of Skyview Villa Apartments. Sarvary, who works for the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, has been a lifeline of support for the family as they struggle to survive without their father.

Gripping the railing to climb the stairs to the family’s second-floor apartment, Omar Rafi is guided by his mother as he comes home from the hospital. UC Davis doctors never expected he would be able to walk again.

Afghan interpreter Nematullah Sarvary returns Omar Rafi to the apartment after he disappeared onto the balcony at Skyview Villa. Since his return home, neighbors have complained about how loud he is and have requested that the family be moved to a first-floor unit. Malalai says she does not feel safe on the ground level without her husband.

Declaring in English, Omar Rafi said, “I’m celebrating my discharge!” as he is greeted by his sisters Saleha, center, and Maryam, left, when they return home from school the day of his release from UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

A manual depicting a cross-section of the brain, “Brain Injury Education,” rests on the coffee table as the Rafi family welcomes Omar home from the hospital. Omar, who turned 9 while in the hospital, wears a protective helmet. Family friend Shaida Samimi helps him cut his celebratory cake. From left, siblings Maryam, 13, Omran, 7, and Saleha, 12, cheer as his mother Malalai, right, smiles.

Omran Rafi hugs his brother after Omar was released from UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

A couple of weeks after being released from the hospital, Omar Rafi waits for his mother to take medication for stress. Malalai struggles with depression and feelings  of hopelessness. She worries about their safety and mourns the loss of her husband. She never dreamed she would be the head of the household making decisions that in Afghanistan are predominantly made by a man.

On the table is a reminder of the numerous medications Omar Rafi must take as he slowly regains his balance and ability to walk. Maryam carefully guides Omar through the kitchen two weeks after he returned home from the hospital.

Omar Rafi receives help from his mother as he slowly regains his motor skills. Earlier, she fed him a traditional Afghan meal of chicken, rice, carrots and raisins.

Claire Thomas, 16, right, a junior at Casa Roble Fundamental High School in Granite Bay, helps Maryam Rafi with a school project while deflecting a balloon left over from Omar’s coming-home celebration. Thomas volunteered weekly to help Maryam after reading about the Afghan family’s plight.

Omar Rafi tires easily and rests in his mother’s lap a few weeks after returning home from the hospital. He was soon placed in a special-needs class for kids 8 to 11 at Cameron Ranch Elementary. On May 16, Omar returned to the hospital to have the hole in his skull plugged. He no longer needs to wear the protective helmet.

Malalai Rafi, far right, joins other Afghan women to bid goodbye to Mohammad Eltaf Stanizai, FYI this last name has changed to Stana 5, left, and his family as they move from Skyview Villa Apartments.. Stana Stanizai’s mother had been hit by a car while walking his sister home from school along Edison Avenue, the same street where Malalai’s husband was killed and her son injured.

Omar Rafi holds a ball after bouncing it throughout the dimly lit classroom for special- needs children in January at Cameron Ranch Elementary School. Other students were participating in a lesson that was projected on a screen in front of the classroom. Omar has a hard time sitting still in class.

Omar Rafi, who likes to be the first in line, is exhausted after a morning of dancing, singing, bouncing a ball and running during recess at Cameron Ranch Elementary School.

Brick marker “C-244” indicates where Mustafa Rafi’s grave is at the Greater Sacramento Muslim Cemetery. Omran Rafi places plastic flowers on his father’s grave in December.

Malalai Rafi wipes away tears as she pleads for justice before the sentencing of Desmen Lashonne Carrino, 25, in Sacramento Superior Court on Feb.11. She brought her younger son Omran, a witness to the fatal accident, to testify that Carrino was driving too fast. A victim’s advocate, left, and Nematallah Sarvary, an interpreter, support Malalai. Carrino was given a 60- day jail sentence, 120 days of community service and three years’ probation for what the judge called “a simple mistake that had tragic consequences.”

Desmen Lashonne Carrino unscrews the second of his studded earrings after the judge asked him to remove all valuables before he was handcuffed and taken to jail at his sentencing in Superior Court in Sacramento.

A “ghost bike” on Edison Avenue is a reminder of the accident that took Mustafa Rafi’s life and seriously injured his young son Omar. In March, Malalai Rafi received an email from her brother Zaker Noori, 23, in Kabul, Afghanistan, informing her that their mother had died. She has begged the U.S. government to grant a visa to Noori, an economics student at Kabul University. She wants him to assume her late husband’s role as man of the family. In an email interview from Kabul, Noori said his visa had been denied.


Afghan mother’s life crumbles when her husband is killed in Sacramento