For an Afghan father, escape was his gift to his daughters
Sayed Omer Sadat, 35, an Afghan refugee, with his two daughters Asma, 11, left, and Aqsa, 6, are seen in his new apartment in El Cajon, Calif., Monday August 23, 2021 (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
EL CAJON, Calif. (Tribune News Service) – Sayed Omer Sadat imagines the world his daughters would have inherited had the family not escaped from Afghanistan.
He thinks of 11-year-old Asma, whom he dreams of one day becoming a doctor. D’Aqsa, 6, who loves lipsticks and eyeshadows and could one day become a makeup artist. From Gulsom, 9, who cannot speak and is completely dependent on his father and mother.
He thinks about what would have happened to them if the Taliban had taken over him because of his work for the US military.
The girls have only known a country without Taliban control. But Sadat knows that over 20 years ago women were confined to their homes, deprived of work and education, and beaten for wearing nail polish.
âThe main concern was the education of my daughters,â said the 35-year-old, his love for his daughters etched on his worried face. “We love our daughters and wives to study and go further.”
That’s why they landed in San Diego on July 20, staying in a hotel and then with a friend as a resettlement agency, struggled to find them – and many other Afghan refugees – a permanent housing. The family was eventually able to move into a two-bedroom apartment in a resort on a busy street in El Cajon.
In early July, President Joe Biden assured Afghan allies that “there is a home for you in the United States if you wish, and we will be by your side as you did with us.” But some refugees have used up their savings while waiting for accommodation. Many rely on local volunteers to furnish empty apartments, which begs the question: what is a ‘home’?
For years Sadat’s home was a four bedroom, four bathroom home in Kabul, where he watched his daughters take their first steps. The house was where his wife worked as an elementary school teacher and where his brother and aging mother still live.
America will now be the theater of the Sadat family’s dreams. But it’s not quite home yet.
Sadat was 7 years old when his family fled the war in Afghanistan. They lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, for about seven years and did not return to Afghanistan until after the US invasion in 2001 following the terrorist attacks of September 11.
After graduating from high school, Sadat started working as a computer operator with the US Army Corps of Engineers. He later became a site supervisor for the maintenance of military bases, supervising electricians and plumbers.
He applied for a special immigrant visa in August 2017, hoping to one day leave with his family for the United States.
Last year, he only returned home to Kabul once a month. He sat in the back of a 60-person passenger van as he passed Taliban checkpoints, hoping no one knew he was heading for a military installation in Mazar-i-Sharif.
This year his wife and mother urged him to quit. Three days after receiving his visa in July, Sadat bought one-way tickets from Afghanistan for his family. They first visited Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on July 19 and then went to Los Angeles.
They brought with them two bags full of clothes and documents. Sadat gave everything in his house to his brother. The relief he felt upon arriving in San Diego was worth it.
âWe are lucky to have left Afghanistan that day,â he said. âWe can just pray for the Afghans left behind. “
His family has seen the situation change dramatically since then. The month after he left, the Taliban captured the town where he had worked. Soon after, they took the capital where he and his family lived.
From San Diego, he saw thousands of desperate Afghans invade the airport, some hanging onto the side of a US military transport plane before falling. As the Taliban urged Afghan women to stay home after work. In an attack by terrorists from the Islamic State, 13 US servicemen and at least 170 Afghans were killed.
âTwenty years ago, it was the same situation as we are experiencing today in Afghanistan,â Sadat said. âEverything has turned upside down. “
Now, as Sadat was so many years ago, his daughters are refugees.
But unlike him, he said, his children will grow up “in a country that has everything.”
In a lime green apartment complex, about 10 miles from where Sadat and his family were staying, three Afghan families arrived last month. Nancy Harman, main organizer of Helping El Cajon Refugees, is an unofficial den mother to those who have arrived there over the years.
When Omar Khaliqyar, whose parents left Afghanistan three and a half years ago, sees her, he runs into her arms. When Harman leaves, the 2 year old burst into tears.
This year, Harman wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy on behalf of a woman trapped in Afghanistan, paid her application fees, and helped her complete forms to escape. She was able to leave the country on August 16 and now lives in the apartment complex with her son.
âSometimes when I get home I just cry, because I feel for these families,â Harman said.
In the neighboring apartment of the Khaliqyar family, 14 pairs of shoes were lying outside. Inside, 11 family members shared the 500-square-foot one bedroom while six awaited permanent accommodation. They kept the green front door open, trying to catch a breeze through a magnetic screen.
As he sat cross-legged on an Afghan carpet, Khan Mula explained in Pashto to an interpreter that he, his wife and four of their six children had fled Afghanistan in mid-August. They were threatened by the Taliban because Mula worked with the US military for almost 10 years. Her 21-year-old twins remain in Afghanistan.
Mula’s nephew – who has a newborn baby and two small children – has offered to host him and his wife, their 16 and 17-year-old sons and their 11-year-old son and daughter. Despite the cramped conditions, Mula described finally being able to sleep without fear of the Taliban.
On a recent Monday afternoon, the Sadat family looked out an upstairs window as a woman with curly blonde hair parked a black Honda Pilot outside their empty apartment.
A large pink mattress was attached to the top of the car. A white mattress was stuffed inside the trunk, topped with bed frames, a new television, and a shoe rack. The only space available was the driver’s seat, where Jill Galante sat.
Within minutes, everyone was at work. Galante handed over a box with a side table that she got from an auction in Asma and a green and orange soccer ball to Aqsa. She then asked Sadat to help her take out a mattress.
For the past 4 1/2 years, Galante has worked with refugees after their resettlement. Through the Helping El Cajon Refugees Facebook page, people have volunteered to set up apartments and make donations.
âNobody thinks a toothbrush is important until you have one,â said lead organizer Galante, whose accent betrays her like a Bostonian. “I don’t want them looking for something and remembering that they left it all behind.”
She and other volunteers have gone from one or two apartments a week to five recently over a seven-day period.
Galante said resettlement agencies warned them to “prepare for a tsunami.” Already, the group is receiving messages from families arriving on short notice at California airports with nothing but clothes on their backs.
A few weeks ago, Galante was asked to watch a family that had just arrived. When Galante visited the apartment, she said, the parents and two children were sleeping on torn sofa cushions they pulled from a dumpster.
The very week they set up Sadat’s apartment, volunteers prepared another for a couple and their little girl. The family had spent $ 2,000 on a two-week stay in a hotel while the three awaited permanent accommodation. After they used up their savings, a friend flew them to Sacramento and put them up there.
âRight now everything is so bad,â said Galante, who has a master’s degree in family therapy. âIf you can help you should. It is a moral obligation. You are one of two people on this earth; either you are helped or you are a helper.
For hours on Monday afternoon, a dozen volunteers placed futons, lamps, a rug, a coffee table and a television in the Sadat family’s living room. They filled the kitchen with pots and pans, plates, cups and silverware. They filled the pantry with packets of spaghetti noodles, cans of diced tomatoes and jasmine rice. Two of the volunteers were Afghan refugees whose families fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.
As Galante was trying to figure out where to put a dresser in the couple’s bedroom, she called out to Sadat, “Where’s the woman?” Where’s the boss? I need the real boss.
“She’s the boss,” Sadat nodded, looking at his wife.
“We are your king,” she joked to her husband, smiling broadly.
In the 80 degree house, with boxed fans as the only relief, Sadat tried to figure out how to turn on the air conditioning, before Galante explained how expensive it would be.
As Asma helped put paper flowers in a basket on the dining room table, Aqsa – who wore a plastic stethoscope around her neck – used a tongue depressor to check the inside of her mouth. Gulsom. They knew a bit of English from watching cartoons at home, enough to say ‘excuse me’ as they navigated the apartment and ‘thank you’ when a volunteer surprised the girls with brand new scooters.
Throughout the day, Aqsa clung to her father like the koalas on her pink dress could be the trunk of a eucalyptus. When told they were lucky to have him, Sadat corrected a reporter: âI’m lucky to have them.
The following weeks would be filled with stress. Find jobs to pay nearly $ 2,000 a month in rent, figure out how to apply for disability for their daughter, and navigate a new country. But just having volunteers stocking his apartment made him a little easier to bear.
âFrom the bottom of my heart I say thank you to them,â Sadat said.
Three days later, the same day that a bomb ravaged the residents of Kabul, Sadat’s daughters were due to start school. Asma is reportedly wearing a sweater with the words “smash”, “bang” and “pow” written on it, her little sister Aqsa a pink plaid shirt and blue jeans.
That night, Aqsa reminded her mother to wake her up before sunrise.
She didn’t want to be late.
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