He packed his life in a bag as he prepared to say goodbye to the only place he’d ever called home.
Two pairs of clothes, some photos and a bag full of gems – that’s all fits in the pack. Everything else for which he worked for years – his house, car, jewelry – he left behind.
Accompanied by his wife and two boys, Shabir Waziri fled to Afghanistan along with about 130,000 others who were airlifted from Kabul as the Taliban took control of the city in August. Three months later, the 28-year-old and his family landed in the small college town of Clermont, where, he says, life is much quieter.
“No planes or loud explosions,” said Vaziri, standing with his sons, 5-year-old Abubakar and 8-year-old Danish, on a recent sunny day a few weeks before Thanksgiving. “We can get used to it.”
Thanks to the Newcomers Access Center, Vaziri and his family have a new temporary home in a dorm room on the vacant Claremont School of Theology campus, where the nonprofit Migrant Support Group is located. The school is providing furnished dormitories to refugees as working families with NAC make their way to Southern California.
“There are 100 million people migrating around the world. And they have been displaced because of war, violence and other natural disasters,” Anne Thorward, the vice chairman of the board of the NAC, said in an interview on the Claremont school campus. “If in Afghanistan Had everything been peaceful and wonderful, people would not have left.”
Vaziri reluctantly nodded his head in agreement.
“For everyone, their country is like a mother,” he said. “You don’t leave that behind. But it’s our new home now and that means starting everything over.”
don’t go back
Staying in Kabul would have been a fatal option, Waziri said.
The Taliban may have killed him and his loved ones, he said, as he worked with US forces in the Afghan capital.
On August 15, Taliban fighters captured Kabul. The takeover led to a mass exodus of people who believed that if they worked closely with the US and its allies, such as Waziri, they would be in danger.
Waziri said, for the past 15 years, he and his father worked as shop jewelers at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, which serves as the operational command center for the NATO-led mission. Vaziri said it made him a target because the government began topple last summer.
When he told his family about leaving Afghanistan, he and his mother cried for more than two hours. There was no going back, said Vaziri.
“I didn’t want to leave but (the Afghan government) handed the country over to the Taliban,” he said, his voice trembling. “I can’t tell you how much stuff I lost but it was Afghanistan losing that hurt the most.”
Another difficult task was to escape from Kabul. Visuals of desperation unfold to the world as people try to secure safe evacuation flights from Kabul International Airport this summer.
At the time, the Taliban said foreigners and Afghans could leave with proper travel documents. However Vaziri and his family were skeptical.
Waziri recalled that they stood outside the airport together for two days until a friend helped them in. He showed his work badge and documents, American personnel eventually accepted it and his family was able to board a crowded US military flight. After an overnight stay in Qatar, the family arrived in the US along with thousands of other displaced Afghans.
With the help of the International Organization for Migration, which works closely with resettlement agencies, Vaziri and his family stayed for 45 days at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. The base is one of four US military facilities designated to evacuate Afghans.
After joining relatives who lived in Rancho Cucamonga, Vaziri said, he and his family found themselves bound for California.
Through the International Institute of Los Angeles, which supports migrants’ transition to new lives, Thorward requested Vaziri’s family to be handed over to the Los Angeles area in September. Otherwise, his family would have been locked up in the US on a random basis, she said.
Thorward’s call made his family’s future possible, Vaziri said, something he could not have imagined since they boarded the plane three months ago.
with open arms
The Newcomers Access Center started in Thorward’s Pomona living room five years ago to help families like Vaziri. Since then, the center’s reach has grown significantly by becoming a non-profit in 2018.
The group empowers refugees and immigrant families to become independent as they establish a home for themselves in America, providing health and wellness workshops, translation services, access to employment opportunities and more.
The center currently serves approximately 50 families in Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario, Pomona, Upland, and throughout the Inland region.
This number may increase. About 70,000 Afghans are expected to arrive in the US under humanitarian parole, a program that streamlines the typically lengthy visa process for non-residents in emergency situations to stay in the country for a period of two years.
Vaziri said his family’s application has been approved, but officials expect the large number of Afghans to come to the US to create a backlog of applicants.
The program has been used over the past 70 years to quickly repatriate people from countries where the US is involved, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, after the end of the Vietnam War.
Thorward said, “All refugees are immigrants but not all immigrants are refugees.” “Most people who come as refugees (do so) because there is trauma or violence in their own country.”
The past three months have been a busy one for Thorward and Kendra. The organization moved from an old office location at Pomona Presbyterian Church to neighboring Clermont. Volunteers help clean up and set up rooms for refugees in student housing at the School of Theology. The school has offered two apartments for temporary refugee housing.
About 25 refugees are living there temporarily, 16 of them are family members of Waziri – his parents, brothers and sisters as well as her husband and children. Thorward said the family recently reunited after months of separation.
To make life easier for them in the US, NAC organized a charity campaign asking the community to cycle. Since many refugees cannot legally drive, bikes help get them around town and perform errands such as grocery shopping.
Meanwhile, the new NAC office provides space for computer labs, ESL classes and more workshops, Thorward said. The center also helped connect families with English classes at Claremont Adult School, about a mile from their temporary home.
High schooled, Waziri enrolls his two sons in school, while he and his wife attend English classes in the morning.
After the arrival of Vaziri and his family to volunteer classes in the first two weeks, things are about to change.
Now that he will be going to his classes by bike, Thorward joked, Vaziri needs to leave 15 minutes earlier.
“You promised me your car last week, remember?” Vaziri said teasingly. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”
Their jokes come easily, as they have been friends for years.
“Did I do it?” Thorward said with a smile. “I wouldn’t have written it down.”
Evidence of their quickly established friendship can be found on Thorward’s right arm, which is adorned with a bracelet made of dark blue lapis—a stone found in Afghanistan—some of the items Vaziri packed when the family fled. one of.
“I’m honored that he gave it to me,” Thorward said. “He had to see if I was good enough.”
“I’m in America now”
California, which is already home to the largest number of Afghan refugees in the US, has been evacuated in large numbers since the Taliban captured Kabul.
The White House previously said more than 5,200 people were expected to visit the Golden State. Many of those who arrived in California requested to settle here because they have family and close friends in the state.
But the road to transition and becoming self-reliant can be tough, especially in a high-cost region like Southern California, said Jonathan Fung, director of legal services at the Immigration Resource Center in the San Gabriel Valley.
“If you’re not working all the time, you’re not going to be able to rent in LA or IE. It’s really hard to keep up with the cost of living, so most of the time we try not to bring them here,” says Fung he said.
“When I was talking to someone from Afghanistan,” Fung said, “he said, ‘You never felt like you were on the verge of poverty there.’ But here’s a whole different story.”
Nahla Kayli, founder and executive director of Access California Services in Anaheim, a nonprofit serving immigrants, refugees and low-income families, said California plays a vital role in welcoming those fleeing violence to their home countries.
“California is very generous,” Kayali said. “We’re busier than ever with recent arrivals. That’s a good thing.”
Kayali agreed with Fung that the cost of living is an obstacle to resettlement of refugees in Southern California. Her nonprofit helps new residents provide things like furniture, the first month’s rent, and even donated cars.
“We have had experience over the years, whether with Iraqi or Syrian refugees, to help them in that transition,” Kayali said.
As for Vaziri, he is looking for help applying for a work permit and later, hopefully, obtaining lawful permanent status as a US resident. US immigration law requires refugees to apply for permanent residence after being physically present in the country for at least one year.
The Biden administration streamlined the resettlement process of the new Afghan refugees. It waived costly application fees for work permits and green cards that can exceed $10,000 per household. Currently, each Afghani expects to receive at least $1,225 to help with rent and food in the US
“I’m ready to go. Maybe Tesla is hiring, who knows,” Vaziri said with a grin. “I’m in America right now, that’s all that matters.”
Although he has been moved to a new life, Vaziri says he finds solace in the possibilities his new home has to offer. His children can now receive quality education, he said, while his wife can continue to go to school, something the Taliban would not have allowed.
“I want my family to grow here,” Vaziri said. “We want a future here, nothing like Afghanistan.”
On being asked if he would like to return to his country one day, he stopped and saw his sons running here and there.
“Of course I do, but I don’t know when these bad things in Afghanistan will stop,” he said. “One day, maybe one day, people can relax and just sleep and not worry.”
Hanging out with their boys, the three discussed which donated bikes they would choose for that weekend. The family will now recover on its own, something that has not been possible for months.
Down the street is a halal store, Waziri said, just a five-minute bike ride from campus.