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Afghan refugees get help from group rooted in aftermath of Vietnam War

Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holder Naimatullah Sultani, 27, a workforce development specialist with Lao Family Community Development Inc. and a social science and business administration student at American River College, studies in the bedroom he shares with another visa holder on Oct. 30 in Sacramento. Sultani worries about keeping up his 4.0 grade-point average and juggling his job helping other Afghan refugees get jobs. He says he studies in the bedroom to give his roommate Ajmal Shahab, 26, privacy to study in the living room and kitchen area of the two-room apartment.
Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holder Naimatullah Sultani, 27, a workforce development specialist with Lao Family Community Development Inc. and a social science and business administration student at American River College, studies in the bedroom he shares with another visa holder on Oct. 30 in Sacramento. Sultani worries about keeping up his 4.0 grade-point average and juggling his job helping other Afghan refugees get jobs. He says he studies in the bedroom to give his roommate Ajmal Shahab, 26, privacy to study in the living room and kitchen area of the two-room apartment. rbyer@sacbee.com

Naimatullah Sultani had no money, no friends and no job prospects when he arrived in Sacramento from Afghanistan in November 2013.

He held a Special Immigrant Visa for his service to U.S. and coalition forces in the war. It’s a distinction that got him into the country, but entitled him to just $350 a month in cash assistance and $189 in food stamps once he was here. Like many recent Afghan immigrants to the U.S., a bureaucratic mix-up even robbed him of his full name. His visa listed him as FNU Naimatullah – first name unknown.

But Sultani, 27, didn’t survive six years and two car bombs helping battle the Taliban without being resourceful. He figured out how to get his name back and has helped others reclaim theirs. While maintaining a 4.0 GPA as a full-time social science and business administration major at American River College, he has become a resource for dozens of newly arrived Afghan refugees and their families trying to find jobs, English classes and schools.

Sultani works for Lao Family Community Development Inc., a nonprofit that grew out of the Lao Family assistance organization founded in 1980 by southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. Most of the Lao Family offices that once operated around the nation have closed, but those in Northern California have expanded their mission to serve refugees from around the world.

With the help of government grants and funding from foundations and individuals, according to its website, Lao Family helps the new arrivals find jobs and housing. It provides financial education and runs a youth program.

Afghans make up a large percentage of the 5,000 people who receive services each year from the Sacramento office, said CEO Chaosarn Chao, a Iu Mien refugee who served as an officer in the CIA’s secret jungle army battling the Lao and Vietnamese communists.

Sacramento recently has emerged as the nation’s top destination for Afghan special visa holders. Including family members, more than 2,000 have settled here since October 2010, with others arriving daily. These former translators, engineers and doctors are often dismayed to discover that their credentials mean nothing here, and they must start over in substandard low-rent apartments with minimum-wage jobs. Their plight was chronicled earlier this year in a Sacramento Bee series, No Safe Place.

Most of them are placed in apartments by one of four resettlement agencies working in Sacramento that contract with the federal government to receive money through the state department. Chao said Lao Family is awaiting certification from the state department so it can join the list of official refugee resettlement agencies.

When Sultani applied for his position as a job developer, he said he was asked if he had any experience. “Working with U.S. forces, I trained and graduated more than 300 Afghan police and another 300 combat soldiers in the Afghan National Army,” Sultani said he replied. “Then I helped train over 50 Afghan helicopter pilots in Kandahar.”

His references include 20 letters and commendations from his commanding officers.

In two years, Sultani has placed more than 100 Afghan refugees as waiters and waitresses, cashiers, butchers, janitors, drivers, roofers, technicians and translators. On Fridays, after attending the midday prayer at the Natomas Islamic Center, he hosts a community meeting to help people solve problems.

“The only problem is I can’t help all of them,” he said. “I can find ESL classes, but what happens if they have small kids and there’s no day care, so the moms can’t go to school?

“There are attorneys, doctors, engineers and architects and they have to start from zero, making minimum wage,” Sultani said. “That’s a bad feeling. We need this money so we can help our kids buy clothes and notebooks, but minimum wage is not enough.”

Last week, Sultani visited the owner of Shan Market, a Pakistani emporium on Northgate Boulevard in north Sacramento, to see how the two Afghan legal experts he had placed in jobs there were doing. One works the late shift as a butcher, while the other works days as a cashier.

“The owner told me they were overqualified, but I told him their degrees are not accepted in this country,” Sultani said.

Sayed Omer Sayedi, 36, the newly minted butcher, obtained his undergraduate degree in law at Kabul University, and translated legal documents while assisting U.S. forces helping Afghan officials enforce new laws protecting women and children.

Sayedi said he would never forget a visit to Paktika, a province on the Pakistan border often subject to attacks by the Taliban and other extremist groups. “We invited the province’s entire administration and couldn’t find any women to participate in our training except a doctor from a public hospital, and a policewoman who was teaching girls at home,” he recalled. “I am the father of three daughters. I think about their future and I’m not hopeful about the future of women in Afghanistan.”

He now works nights and weekends at the market for $11 an hour. On weekdays, he goes to the Sacramento City Unified School District’s Charles A. Jones Career & Education Center to learn how to become a heating and air conditioning technician.

“My wife can’t drive or speak the language or go to medical appointments, so there’s just one person – me – to do everything,” he said, while slicing up fresh chicken parts as Indian music filled the store. “I hope to be a lawyer one day,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. If I can’t, I hope my children will be able to.”

Sayedi said he is grateful for Sultani’s help. “Naimatullah’s a good guy; he supports every person without consideration of their race or language – he wants to help everybody,” he said.

Next door at Pamir Afghan Cuisine Halal Pizza, Shafiqullah Sadeq a refugee with a degree in English literature, earns $12 an hour as a cook, dishwasher and cashier.

“He’s a good worker,” said the owner, Afghan immigrant Zaki Esmatyar. “Tell Naimatullah to send me more people.”

The son of an auto mechanic, Sultani was the fifth of nine children and hasn’t forgotten how hard life was in Afghanistan. “My dad was making $100 a month supporting the whole family, and if you don’t speak English you and your family will struggle,” he said. “When I graduated high school in 2007, fighting was going on and there were no jobs except with coalition forces.”

He enrolled in a language institute and got the highest grades in his class, which earned him free tuition and a job with U.S. forces in the war-torn south, where he ultimately made $915 a month, which he turned over to his father. While his family begged him not to sign up for such a potentially dangerous mission, he said he was “super happy to help the U.S. Army, my country and my people, and make a bridge between the villagers and the coalition forces.”

He learned how to use an AK-47 while helping train Afghan security forces. “I was in fighting every single day I went out,” he said. Once, while he and his unit were sleeping, they came under rocket fire. “We were lucky the Air Force saw them and shot them, or we wouldn’t be alive now.”

Sultani landed in Virginia. Through an online search, he learned that California, and particularly Sacramento, had become a hub for Afghan refugees. Along with hundreds of other refugees in the Sacramento area, he went to work for Volt, an Apple subcontractor, testing and repairing iPhones at Apple’s Elk Grove facility.

He eventually found his way to Lao Family Community Development, originally part of a nationwide network of 37 assistance centers founded by the late Hmong General Vang Pao in 1977 to help Hmong and Iu Mien refugees find jobs, learn English and navigate American health care, banks and culture.

Sultani, who is single, spends his weekends in the one-bedroom, $600 a month apartment he shares with another Afghan refugee who is studying math and economics.

“He’s very honest and hardworking and everything I ask him to do he does – helping people with resettlement, jobs, ESL, housing, immigration and more,” Chao said of Sultani. Chao recently hired another Afghan immigrant, recent UC Davis graduate Rawash Yar, as a job developer.

Chao keeps Sultani’s schedule flexible to he can finish his education. Sultani, who attends ARC in the morning and then puts in a full day at the agency, has already been accepted into California State University, Sacramento, next year. “When he gets his degree, he can do even bigger things helping his community,” Chao said.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini Staff photographer Renée C. Byer contributed to this story.

Want to help?

To contact Lao Family Community Development Inc. in Sacramento, call 916-359-2788.

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