Afghan Refugees

Former Afghan interpreter shifts gears for a new career in America

Yalda Kabiri’s day care business is nothing fancy – just a converted bedroom in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and two children in Arden Arcade.

She has put down new pieces of carpet in an effort to thwart the bedbugs and roaches infesting the complex.

Her home business represents a small first step toward building a new career in the United States. It’s also meeting a critical need among Afghan refugees in Sacramento. Newly arrived Afghan mothers are required to attend English classes and enroll in job training programs as a condition of receiving government aid, and they need someone to watch their children.

Kabiri, 27, was among a small minority of female interpreters employed by the U.S. military during its occupation of Afghanistan. Unlike many of the Afghan women arriving here, she is accustomed to working outside the home and speaks English. Besides running her day care, she is taking classes at American River College with the goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher and maybe – someday – a lawyer who helps other immigrants.

“Every immigrant has a big idea,” Kabiri said.

Kabiri’s father was a tailor. Her mother taught high school but lost her job in 1996 when the Taliban took over Kabul. “I was in fourth grade when they closed all schools and universities for girls, so my mom had a secret school in our home,” she said.

At the time, she said, women who went outside without burqas shrouding them from head to toe were whipped or beaten with sticks. “When I remember what happened, I start crying.”

Kabiri was in seventh grade when U.S. forces recaptured Kabul. She went back to school, and began studying English.

After high school, she earned an ESL certificate and passed the test to become one of the few female translators for the U.S. military. She was assigned to the medical task force at the Bagram Air Base, where she worked with Afghans from remote villages, many of them women and children. Kabiri earned $1,000 a month, money that helped support her six sisters and brother.

At 21, she married a young man she met in her ESL class.

Kabiri commuted six hours round-trip to work, six days a week. She said she was often taunted and threatened as she rode in a taxi or carpooled to the base in northeast Afghanistan. She tried to keep her job a secret because of widespread hostility toward people who worked with the United States.

“One day, the taxi driver tried to kidnap me and my daughter and we had to jump out,” she said.

In 2013, while she was pregnant with her second child, Kabiri was granted a visa to come to the United States. But the U.S. Embassy refused to grant one for her husband, despite her almost daily pleas. Kabiri used $2,300 in savings to buy tickets for herself and Sana, her daughter.

She had no friends or relatives in the United States, but she knew where she wanted to go. “I said I wanted to go to California because I heard there were a lot of Afghans,” she said.

She was settled by the International Rescue Committee, one of four nonprofit organizations responsible for administering federal refugee aid in Sacramento. The group placed her in the Villa Capri apartments, a low-slung complex of worn buildings on Trussel Way in Arden Arcade. She said her apartment had dirty carpets and was infested with bedbugs and roaches. One day last summer, she ducked for cover when she heard gunshots outside her windows.

The reality of life in Arden Arcade was not what she expected.

Yalda Kabiri supervises her youngest daughter Usna, 2, as well as Ozair and Samaa, 17-month-old twins enrolled in her day care. In Afghanistan, she worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in dangerous provinces.

“My dream was a nice house, nice location,” she said. “I worry about the children and what they see growing up here. They hear gunshots, see police cars and can smell marijuana.”

Villa Capri is owned by Emily Chen of Cupertino, who did not return calls from The Sacramento Bee.

In September 2010, the 70-unit complex was cited for roaches in at least 15 apartments, broken or missing screens, broken air conditioning, faulty switches and non-functioning smoke detectors, according to public records.

Shortly before Afghan refugees began to move in several years ago, someone was killed on the property, said Sacramento County Code Enforcement manager Barry Chamberlain.

“They pretty much did a huge rehab of the property,” Chamberlain said. “The DA was involved, the sheriff was involved, the bank was involved. The murder was the triggering incident.”

Once she had moved into Villa Capri, Kabiri had to figure out how to get to the doctor for her prenatal appointments. Her husband, Zabihullah Najem, arrived in the U.S. a month after she did, but the couple didn’t have a car.

At first, a representative of the International Relief Committee drove her, but that stopped after a month, Kabiri said. She was left with no car or money for cab fare. So the couple bought a bicycle from Walmart and she learned to ride it.

“I biked for 90 minutes each way to my doctor’s office in Fair Oaks every week,” she said. Their second daughter, Usna, was born in July 2013.

Najem landed a $12-an-hour job working the 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. shift at the Apple facility in Elk Grove. Several hundred Afghan refugees have been hired there by an Apple subcontractor, Volt Workforce Solutions. The swing shift schedule allows Najem to help out and watch the girls twice a week so his wife can attend school.

“I’m a technician. We check iPhones before releasing them to the public,” said Najem, 33. “I work 40 hours a week. We don’t have health care. I wish they’d give us iPhones.”

The Bee’s Renée C. Byer contributed to this report.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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