Just 20 days after he arrived in Sacramento on a Special Immigrant visa, Mustafa Rafi, 33, was taken to the cemetery in a cardboard casket. The wife of the man who had worked as an engineer with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan could afford nothing more.
Hundreds of mourners came to Sacramento’s Downtown Mosque on Tuesday to mourn Rafi, who was riding his bicycle with his young son outside their apartment building on Edison Avenue when they were struck by a driver who police say may have been texting on his cellphone.
The boy, Omar, 8, remained in critical condition Tuesday.
For nearly an hour, the mosque’s walls reverberated with the moans of Rafi’s wife of 15 years, Malalai Rafi, 35. Clad in a black robe and headscarf, she cried out to Allah and her late husband in her native Dari language while three of her children – Mariam, 13, Saleha, 8, and Imran, 6 – nestled into her. After Afghan men completed the ritual washing of Rafi’s body, it was brought out in the open box. Malalai and her daughter Mariam crumpled to the floor.
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“They’re going to put you in the grave, I pray not to see my son this way,” Malalai sobbed. She raised her hands and cried, “He’s calling me. Let me go to him.”
The motorist, identified by the California Highway Patrol as Desmen Lashonne Carrino, 25, of Sacramento, is still under investigation but has not been charged, said CHP spokeswoman Jenna Berry. On Sunday, the CHP said Carrino was looking down at a cellphone when his 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix drifted into the bike lane while heading west on Edison.
“There’s potentially another victim,” Berry said, referring to Omar. “We’re investigating whether Carrino was texting while driving, which could have contributed to the accident.”
Rafi fled with his family to Sacramento after the Taliban threatened their lives because he had worked as an engineer with the U.S. Army, said Obaid Ahmady, a former U.S. Army interpreter who has known him for 20 years. Many of those in attendance at Tuesday’s funeral were Afghan refugees, including several dozen who had served with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“He did a lot of great things for the U.S. government,” said Ahmady, 32, who lives next door to the family. “He was supporting freedom in Afghanistan. He built a lot of facilities for the Afghan military along with roads, schools and government buildings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
Rafi, who arrived here from Kabul on June 24, hadn’t yet formulated a plan, other than to help his kids succeed, Ahmady said. He was biking with Omar to the 99-Cent Store in the neighborhood to try and find a little bicycle for Imran.
Now, he said, Rafi’s family is barely surviving. “Rafi came here to have a good life and his family is practically homeless. They don’t have a car, they don’t know what to do or where to go.”
Ahmady said Malalai Rafi has no family here and couldn’t afford to ship Rafi’s body back to Kabul. He said she’s hoping the U.S. State Department will issue Malalai’s brother a visa so he can help take care of his nieces and nephews.
Souma Samez, a Sacramento Afghan refugee, comforted Malalai at Tuesday’s service. “My heart is bleeding for them,” she said. “I know how hard it is to come to a completely strange and different country,” she said. “When I landed in New York on Jan. 31, 1984, I was filled with fear.”
Malalai speaks no English and she doesn’t drive. In that sense, her circumstances are similar to those of hundreds of Afghan women in the Sacramento area, said Dr. Ahmad Fahim Pirzada, CEO of the Veteran Immigrant & Refugee Trauma Institute of Sacramento.
“About 7,000 Afghan refugees have arrived here since 2007 and more are coming, but we don’t have programs set up, and many of the women are suffering from post-migration trauma, are afraid to leave their apartments and are very depressed,” he said. “They know how to sew, make clothes and cook, but most are illiterate.”
So are many of the men, who were issued Special Immigrant visas for their service to the United States, and include several hundred doctors, engineers, nurses and project managers who can’t find jobs, Pirzada said.
Northern California’s Afghan community is doing what it can, said Shaida Samimi, who came from Fremont to assist the family and establish an account for them at http://gofundme.com/mustafaandomar. More than $39,000 was raised in one day.
“We hope to use any donations to teach her English, how to drive, get her a car and make her an example of what’s possible,” Pirzada said of Malalai.
After mourners viewed the body Tuesday, Imam Mumtaz Qasmi led them in a prayer: “Oh God, please forgive us, those who are alive, those who are present, those who have passed away ... Please forgive the driver ... and give us the strength to maintain our faith.”
Following the prayer, the mourners draped a cloth over the cardboard casket and carried it out to be transported to the cemetery. “Balance the box on your shoulders,” Qasmi instructed them. “Don’t rush.”