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The Voice of a Refugee

by Samira Khairkhawa

September 19, 2002. The day my family and I faced a turning point in our lives, the day we resettled in Charlottesville as refugees, actually as refugees once again. The day I as 9-year-old girl started dreaming about my future, a future that I was finally sure of, a promising future. Before this day I do not remember ever thinking about what I wanted to be when I grow up, in fact, before this day, I do not remember believing in the future.

“She made sacrifices leaving her whole family, her culture, and most importantly she was missing speaking her language everywhere she went.”

My family fled Afghanistan in 1998, two years after the Taliban took over Kabul. I will never forget, it was in the early hours of the morning, still dark out, when my family got on a bus with other families who were also forced to flee their homes. We were told to pack only necessities, so we locked our home with all of our traditional rugs and other important belongings, not knowing if we would ever return, and we never did. When we got on the bus, everyone did a prayer, hoping to not get pulled over by the Taliban and be prevented from fleeing, and possibly punished.  Families had to come up with stories if we did get pulled over, explaining why we were going to Pakistan, the closest and safest country we could get to. My parents had to tell us not to mention moving there. Instead, we came up with a false story about my mother being sick and we are going to Pakistan to treat her. We got lucky and our bus did not get pulled over, thanks to our bus driver who knew the secret routes.

When resettled in Pakistan as refugees, we were not sure where life was going to take us. Living in Pakistan was not easy for my family, my father struggled finding a job, and providing for us. Due to constant stress, he became very ill, which paralyzed him. We did not think things could get worse, but then he was diagnosed with cancer. In 2001, he stopped fighting, and we lost our father. Now, the future was even more blurry. I remember my mother saying, “now we definitely can’t go back to Afghanistan, not without an adult male.” We will not be able to survive she said. She became so determined to get my two brothers and me to the States. I remember her saying “you all deserve a bright future.” Ever since, I have looked at my mother as my superhero. She made this goal of bringing us here to the States, in order for us to have an opportunity to grow in a safe country where we could get an education and do something meaningful with our lives. She did not stop reaching for that goal until she succeeded.

September 19, 2002, yes, a day we were filled with joy, and the start of our bright future that my mom promised us, but it was not easy coming into a world that was completely new to us. I remember my mother standing by the window crying for what seemed hours to me, she tried to hide her loneliness, but we knew she was missing her home. She made sacrifices leaving her whole family, her culture, and most importantly she was missing speaking her language everywhere she went.

I remember a couple days after our arrival we were brought to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) where we met other Afghan families, families who were also newcomers. Finally, my mother found a community that she felt a part of, a community that made her feel somewhat at home.

Seeing my mother work hard, being forced to adjust to the culture here, for the sake of my brothers and me, made me so determined to succeed; I  remember telling myself then and I still do now, I cannot let her feel like her sacrifices went to waste.

September 19th 2002. I was nine years old, I did not speak any English, but I remember smiling a lot, because I remember my mother telling us we have to show “the Americans” we are happy to be here, so we don’t get sent back. So just imagine how much I smiled. Fortunately for us, the fear of being sent back did not last very long. Everyone we met was so kind, my teachers at school, people at the IRC, at grocery stores, doctors, and nurses. It was different than Pakistan, so we trusted that we were permanently here, here we would make memories, and that this would be our new home.

So I started dreaming big, I went through the very typical phase of wanting to be a teacher, especially after my first year of school in the United States. Even more when I watched my third grade teacher, Mary Plank, with whom I am still very close, take so much time outside of her teacher role to help both my family and me. I remember telling myself I want to be just like her, I want to help people. Today, I am not a teacher, but I did reach my dream of helping people. I work for a nonprofit organization, Readykids, as a Family Support Worker, helpings families create healthy relationships with a mission of preventing child abuse and neglect, while also pursing my masters in counseling. I came as a refugee, but I still had dreams. My mother always told us to dream big because we were in the land of opportunities, and to not miss those opportunities. She always reminded us and still does, that if we did not come here, we would not have been able to survive in Afghanistan. And I believe that.

September 19th 2002. The day my family and I were provided with a promising future, a day that we will always be grateful for.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.


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