Malalai Rafi remembers the joy she felt the day her husband returned from work to their home in suburban Kabul and announced that they and their four children were going to America.
His service to the U.S. Army had been rewarded, she recalled thinking. Now they could pursue their dreams in a safer place.
Mustafa Rafi had performed a variety of dangerous missions, and his wife had always prayed for him to come home alive. While theirs was an arranged marriage, she described Mustafa as the love of her life.
“He said he wanted to focus on our kids’ education as well as his dream of getting a master’s degree,” said Rafi. “I wasn’t afraid. I was thinking America is a safe place.”
She sat in her apartment in Sacramento, recounting her story through a torrent of tears.
“And then,” she said. “It all flipped.”
One Sunday last summer, on July 12, just a few weeks after arriving in the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, Mustafa Rafi was biking on Edison Avenue with his son Omar as his other son Omran walked alongside them. At that moment, Desmen Lashonne Carrino of Stockton was driving up from behind them in his ’99 Pontiac Grand Prix.
A CHP officer later said Carrino glanced down at his cellphone. In that split second, he swerved into the bike lane and hit Mustafa Rafi and 8-year-old Omar. Neither was wearing a helmet.
The right side of Omar’s head slammed into the pavement. He was rushed to UC Davis Medical Center, where doctors removed a crescent-shaped piece of his skull to relieve pressure on his bleeding, swollen brain. He was sedated and kept in a coma to allow the swelling to subside.
Mustafa Rafi, 35, suffered massive head injuries. He was pronounced dead at Mercy San Juan Medical Center.
Malalai Rafi, now 36, suddenly became her family’s main navigator and decision-maker. She had to take her kids to medical appointments, enroll them in school, figure out how to shop and pay the bills.
She was a teenager when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam that forbade women to attend school or even leave the house without wearing a head-to-toe burqa. Rafi is illiterate and knows little English. She and the other women in her apartment complex generally don’t drive.
“I will be alone running all the things on my own,” Rafi said. “Mustafa was the breadwinner for 13 people in Afghanistan. I’m concerned about my mother, my father-in-law.”
At the funeral, her husband’s body lay in a cardboard box. She wailed, her hands reaching for the sky, and asked Allah to take her, too. “They’re going to put you in the grave, I pray not to see my son this way,” she sobbed in her native Dari. “He’s calling me. Let me go to him.”
After the funeral, Rafi fell into a routine. She woke at 5 a.m. every day. She knelt and recited the first of her five daily prayers, then she visited Omar in the hospital. She spoke to him and caressed his hands. Nurses recorded her voice and played it for him later when she couldn’t be there.
‘I was happy’
Weeks went by. Omar remained hospitalized. His doctors couldn’t say if he’d ever walk or talk again.
Rafi would come home each day from the hospital to the dark apartment where her daughters Maryam, 13, and Saleha, 12, and son Omran, 7, played or did homework or chores. Omar’s green bicycle sat just inside the front door. Sometimes his sisters would ride it, making sure to strap on their helmets.
Across the street from the complex, a white “ghost bike” chained to a post near the crash site served as a constant reminder of what happened.
Rafi said she could barely cope. “When I see Mustafa’s shoes and shirts, I cry,” she said. “My husband loved me so much that even if a hair fell from my head, he would pick it up and keep it.”
The family received more than $85,000 in donations after The Bee published a story about Mustafa’s funeral. Rafi placed most of it in an education fund for the children.
She relied on help from her caseworker Nematullah Sarvary, a former U.S. translator in Afghanistan. He now works for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, the resettlement agency that helped the family get established. But Nematullah has other clients and his own family of six to manage.
“We as a refugee organization would have been completely lost without Nematullah to teach us about culturally appropriate behavior and the unique challenges facing this family and what to expect,” said Genevieve Levy, director of refugee services for the Sacramento Food Bank. “He helped explain burial and cemetery rituals, as well as helping Malalai understand all the big things coming her way, from Omar’s treatment and her kids’ schools.”
After several weeks – and many missed connections – Rafi learned how to take the bus to and from UC Davis Medical Center.
She begged the U.S. government to send her brother here from Afghanistan to assume the role of decision-maker and disciplinarian. “Afghan women are so dependent on their husband, father and brother – our responsibility is to cook good food and provide a good home,” she explained. “We are not like women from other countries; we are scared of taking responsibility.”
Dr. Fahim Pirzada, a refugee from Afghanistan who works as a medical translator and runs VIRTIS – the nonprofit Veteran, Immigrant and Refugee Trauma Institute of Sacramento – took on the task of teaching Rafi how to take care of herself. He figured she would need a year to get her bearings.
“I’m very concerned the refugee women here are forgotten,” he said. “When I tell them, ‘You don’t need to live the life you lived in Afghanistan. You can drive, go to school, get a job,’ I see a big change in their faces. They love to hear that. But their men don’t know where to start helping them.”
With Omar still in a coma, Rafi said she couldn’t focus on anything but her son’s recovery.
Omran, her youngest, was coming home from school without homework, and Rafi wondered why. But she couldn’t communicate directly with his teachers.
Sometimes, she looked wistfully at pictures of her home in Kabul on her cellphone. There, from 2010 to 2013, her husband, an electrical engineering graduate of Kabul University, worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He help build garrisons, power plants and infrastructure for roads and schools in Balkh, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces. He received half a dozen U.S. Army commendations for his contributions to rebuilding the country.
Rafi’s marriage to Mustafa – a cousin – was arranged by their families in Parwan province, north of Kabul.
“I was happy,” she said. “I knew he was a hard-working guy, studying books in his spare time to someday get his master’s degree. He was not picky. He liked everything I cooked – except okra.”
They had a beautiful home, she said, and her husband made a good salary by Afghan standards.
But like other Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, Mustafa Rafi and his family faced a grave threat of harm from the Taliban and its sympathizers. Staying in the country wasn’t an option.
They arrived in Sacramento in June 2015 and moved into a second-floor apartment in Skyview Villa, an apartment complex in Arden Arcade that refugee resettlement agencies have turned into an enclave for Afghan immigrants, nearly all of them veterans of the U.S.-led war.
Rafi knows she cannot return, even though she misses her country. The couple rented out their home in Kabul when they left, but the tenant turned out to be with the Taliban. “They took over our home and quit paying us rent,” she said. “I think that was their plan all along because they knew my husband worked for the U.S.”
‘Hola, como estas?’
Omar awoke, unable to comprehend what had happened to him. A piece of skull was missing from the right side of his head.
His behavior swung wildly. Sometimes he would be gentle and caring. Other times, he would bite, spit or hit the doctors and nurses. 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.
“He was hoping to become a doctor,” Rafi said. “All of the kids were excited to come to America.”
On Aug. 13, 2015, the same day his siblings started school, Omar had surgery. 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.
With their brother still in the hospital, Omar’s siblings were often left on their own. Maryam and Saleha walked 30 minutes along Edison Avenue to Arcade Fundamental Middle School. A neighbor drove Omran to his school, Dyer-Kelly Elementary.
“If my mom learns to drive, then we won’t have to walk to school,” Maryam said one sweltering September afternoon after school in their apartment. “It was so hot yesterday, my little sister almost fainted.”
None of the three kids had bus passes. Rafi said she had Nematullah call the carpool tree offered by the district, but no one returned their calls.
During those first weeks of school, the kids didn’t know when their mom would return home from the hospital. “It depends on whether my brother is agitated or not,” said Maryam.
“She usually misses her stop,” Saleha said.
The girls kept the blinds tightly shut because, they said, they didn’t feel safe. Their mother had made an arrangement: If they needed help while she was out, she told them to stamp on the floor to alert the neighbor downstairs.
On this day, Saleha had borrowed a vacuum cleaner from a neighbor. She vacuumed for about 15 minutes before turning her attention to her passion: watercolor painting.
Both girls said they were picking up English quickly, and were learning Spanish as well. “Hola, como estas?” Saleha said brightly.
Maryam, who learned some English in Afghanistan, said she hopes to become an engineer like her dad. But in the meantime, she was co-parenting with her mom – an exhausting job.
As sunset approached, the girls knew they should pray, but they weren’t sure exactly when. “When my dad was alive,” Maryam said, “he would set the Azan (call to prayer) on his phone and would tell us.”
The sisters find comfort in their bedroom, which has bunk beds on either side. Maryam sleeps with a big red-headed doll, a gift from her father. Under her pillow, she keeps a pendant with a picture of Mustafa.
Omar used to sleep in the bunk beneath her and would push her mattress up with his feet, annoying her. “Now that I look back on it, I wouldn’t yell at him,” she said.
Slowly, thanks to three hours of physical therapy daily, Omar began to make progress. By the end of September, he was still spitting, punching, and talking loudly, but was able to stand up with assistance.
“We have a lot to figure out because he’s a very complicated, convoluted case,” said clinical case manager Jodie Sakaris.
A son returns
On Oct. 14, three months after the accident, Omar came home to Skyview Villa. He scrambled out of a gray SUV in the parking lot, wearing a white crash helmet to protect his skull, which was still partially open. He sat on a plastic chair, allowing the afternoon sun to caress his face.
He sprang to his feet, brushed aside his wheelchair and shook hands with a neighbor boy he hadn’t seen since he was rushed to the emergency room three months earlier. “Hi. I speak English and Farsi,” he announced.
He looked around the beige apartment complex and then hustled to the stairs. His mother guided him as he grabbed the railing and pulled himself up to the apartment that had been his home for less than three weeks when the Pontiac crashed into him and his dad.
To his mother, Omar was the greatest show on earth.
Sarvary, the family’s Afghan case worker, carried big bags of gifts from the SUV to the apartment – birthday presents from the medical staff to Omar, who turned 9 in the hospital. “When he saw they were celebrating his discharge he was very happy; he was kissing every nurse,” Sarvary said. “He was making us run behind him.”
Omran came home from school first and greeted his big brother, snuggling close to him on the couch. Maryam and Seleha arrived soon after, and Omar hugged and kissed them. He declared in English, “I’m celebrating my discharge! I’m an athlete – volleyball!”
For the first time in three months, Rafi could smile. “I was not expecting he would walk again, I prayed for God to give me back my son, that was my dream,” she said.
Omar recited his ABCs and 123s, but was still a little disoriented. “Let me go back to the hospital; I want to see my friend Basit,” he said.
On the coffee table sat a daunting new book depicting a cross section of the brain, “Brain Injury Education.” A chart would help Omar’s family keep track of his daily medications.
“He’s actually made an amazing recovery despite a very, very serious injury,” said Dr. JoAnne Natale, medical director for UC Davis’ pediatric intensive-care unit. “He was critically injured, and we never know how these kids will do.”
Natale remembers the miracle of Omar emerging from his coma and actually responding to a doctor who speaks Farsi.
She said his sometimes aggressive behavior is typical for a brain injury patient, but so is continued improvement. “Nobody expected him to be walking; I bet he walks great now,” she said.
Shortly after he returned from the hospital, Omar was placed in a special-needs class for children ages 8 to 11 at Cameron Ranch Elementary. On a Tuesday in January, he bounded off the bus in his white crash helmet singing, dancing and hugging each classmate. Then he walked arm-in-arm into the classroom with a girl with Down syndrome, and a second girl found her way under his free arm.
His motor skills needed work – he dropped his bacon and burrito several times while carrying his breakfast tray – and he couldn’t sit still, repeatedly walking around during yoga and math lessons. But he helped tally votes during the science lesson, and learned to pronounce “solid” and “liquid.”
“He’s made a lot of progress to just understand where he is and why,” said his teacher, Danielle Barbot. “He’s such a charmer. It’s like the Omar show all day long. When he first got here, he moved slowly, and now you can’t keep him back. He was very frustrated when he couldn’t communicate in English, but he’s picking it up quickly.”
On Dec. 20, a cold, drizzly Sunday morning, a volunteer drove Rafi and her four children to the Greater Sacramento Mus lim Cemetery on Eagle’s Nest Road to pray at their father’s grave.
Robina Gal, also an Afghan refugee, took them in her family’s SUV. Gal arrived in the United States in 1981, and now she devotes time to helping the new wave of Afghans.
The family members were quiet and sad during the visit, except for Omar, who talked about all the things he wants to do, like learning how to drive and speak English, Gal said. The family finally had told him that his father was dead, “but he didn’t seem to fully understand, and thought his dad was in Afghanistan,” she said.
They gathered around a single brick, labeled C-244, that marked the spot where Mustafa Rafi is buried.
Rafi realized she hadn’t brought any flowers. The family walked through the cemetery to collect plastic flowers that had blown away from other gravesites. Maryam took a white plastic flower and laid it down.
She had written a poem she hoped would be carved on her father’s permanent gravestone. She called it “Memories of Our Dad.”
‘I want justice’
Life didn’t get much easier in the ensuing months. Rafi took small steps to move forward but continued to struggle with her overwhelming responsibilities.
She was furious that the driver who killed her husband and nearly killed her son was charged only with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and driving on a suspended license. “In Afghanistan, you would have been sent to prison for 15 years, or executed,” she said.
Carrino, a father himself, said he was “really, really sorry” about what happened.
“It was purely an accident,” he told The Sacramento Bee in an interview outside the courtroom after an earlier court appearance.
Rafi and Carrino faced each other in court on Feb. 11 for his sentencing. Rafi had brought along Omran, who was 6 when he saw his father killed, as a potential witness.
Weeping, Rafi spoke through an interpreter, describing to the judge the devastation that followed the accident. “He destroyed my life; he destroyed my kid’s future. … He’s disabled, he’s not a normal kid,” she said. “Based on my culture, I will never think of marrying again.”
She spoke of her husband’s service to the United States, and even suggested that Carrino had hit her husband and son on purpose.
Judge Gary S. Mullen gazed at her and said gently, “I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through … it’s a nightmare. … I know you don’t want to hear this, but Mr. Carrino is not a bad person. It’s a simple mistake that had tragic consequences. He’s a young man of 25. Like you, he has a family. He has no criminal record. He’s not committing crimes and hurting people.”
Carrino, clad in a white dress shirt and pressed black pants, stood contritely with his head down.
Mullen sentenced Carrino to 60 days in jail, 120 days of community service and three years’ probation. He was handcuffed and put into a cage in the courtroom awaiting transfer to the jail.
Rafi left the courtroom. She sighed in relief. “At least he was sentenced a little bit, and it calmed down my heart when I saw him handcuffed.”
She had started taking ESL classes at Omran’s school in December, but had trouble focusing. In an April interview at Skyview Villa, Rafi said she was too preoccupied to concentrate in her English class or learn how to drive her kids to school. English class meets five days a week, but she goes only about twice.
She stood alone in the doorway of her apartment. She said she was overwhelmed by continued grief for her husband, the difficulty of caring for Omar and the recent news that her mother had died in Afghanistan.
“I’m so tired I don’t have the ability to learn anything,” she said.“I have lots of problems and nobody helps me. Today I canceled two appointments. When I get letters, I need somebody to translate.”
The family now receives $909 a month in cash aid and $771 in food stamps, said the Food Bank’s Levy. Rafi can qualify for two years if she complies with the rules, including taking English classes. Because Omar requires much more than normal parenting, Rafi also receives $10 an hour through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program for being his full-time caregiver.
She desperately wants her brother Zaker Noori, 23, an economics student at Kabul University, to come to Sacramento to take over as head of family.
But the U.S. government has denied Noori’s visa application. In March, Noori had to break the news to his sister that their mother had died.
“I just want to help my sister; she needs me,” Noori said in an email interview. Since his brother-in-law died, he said, the children have had little fun in their lives, something he could provide if he were allowed to come to Sacramento.
Rafi said she doesn’t know how she’ll manage if her brother isn’t allowed to join her.
“My husband worked eight years for the U.S.; now I need the U.S. to take care of me and help me solve my problems.”
The Bee’s Renée C. Byer contributed to this report.
Maryam Rafi’s poem
He wasn’t a hero,
Known to the world.
But a hero he was,
To his four children.
He taught us life lessons,
Of right from wrong.
And instilled in us values,
That we might be strong.
His presence was vital,
And we loved to see him smile.
For no one in the world
Could match his style
And so dear Dad,
Our best memory to recall
Is the gift of your short time with us,
The greatest gift of all.
Your memories will live on,
The only thing we will have to cherish.
We love you Dad,
You will be missed dearly by all of us.