Mohammed with two of his five children in Concord, where the Afghan family has been resettled by JFCS East Bay. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Mohammed with two of his five children in Concord, where the Afghan family has been resettled by JFCS East Bay. (Photo/Michael Fox)

Afghan refugee family starts new life in East Bay, with help of JFCS

Mohammed is a pseudonym. He asked that his real name and identifying photos not be used because he fears retribution against family members who remain in Afghanistan.

When Mohammed glances around the modestly furnished, two-bedroom, two-story apartment in Concord where he moved earlier this month with his family, everything is unfamiliar.

The gray sofa and rugs on the floor were gifts from family members. The beds in the cramped bedrooms, the dining table and chairs, pots and pans in the kitchen all appeared, as if by magic.

It’s a far cry from the spacious, four-bedroom, four-bath apartment where Mohammed, his wife and their five children lived in Kabul. And yet, he is thankful for the quiet of this suburban American neighborhood, the public schools that have welcomed his sons and daughters, and the assistance he’s received from Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, the agency responsible for the family’s resettlement.

“These kind people did so much for us,” he said of agency staff who helped his children enroll in school, set up medical appointments, took him to the library and the bank, and found this apartment for his family.

Washing dishes in the two-bedroom apartment where the family of seven lives. (Photo/Michael Fox)
Washing dishes in the two-bedroom apartment where the family of seven lives. (Photo/Michael Fox)

JFCS East Bay is one of three agencies in the Bay Area working to resettle Afghan refugees (Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley is another). Since the U.S. began its withdrawal of U.S. troops, the East Bay agency has been overwhelmed with cases. It resettled 108 Afghans in August and September and is on track for 60 to 70 more in October. In just a few months, in fact, JFCS East Bay has worked with more Afghan refugees than it typically resettles in an entire year. In recent weeks, JFCS has hired three new staff — all Afghan immigrants themselves — to help with the effort.

The agency has been resettling refugees since the 1930s and started working with Afghans in 2008. Most of the refugees from Afghanistan have come with Special Immigrant Visas. The visa program was established in 2009 specifically for Afghan citizens, along with their spouses and children, who worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and who faced threats because of their association with the United States.

“Moving to an entirely different country is traumatic for anyone,” said Holly Taines White, senior director of development and community engagement for JFCS East Bay. “But the mental health and trauma issues for these people are huge. All of the relief they feel about getting out is combined with the real fear and concern for loved ones back home and the sadness about what’s happening to their country.”

In Kabul, Mohammed, 41, earned a master’s degree in business administration and held a series of jobs working in finance and administration for U.S. and international institutions, including the United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development and, most recently, the World Bank. He was able to earn a good living and live a comfortable lifestyle by Afghan standards.

“Initially, I didn’t want to leave,” he said, sitting in the small living room of his new home. “But day by day, the conditions got worse. The terrorists could kill anyone.”

As he talks, his 3-month-old baby boy gurgles in a bouncy seat at his feet while two of his older children play a card game on the floor.

Initially, I didn’t want to leave. But day by day, the conditions got worse. The terrorists could kill anyone.

Mohammed first applied for Special Immigrant Visa status in 2018, but he said it took 2½ years to get the visas for himself, his wife and his older children, ages 6 to 15. He secured the last visa, for his infant son, just weeks before U.S. troops were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan.

After picking up the baby’s visa one morning, he went to work, only to find the office empty. The sole person there was an armed security guard who told him the Taliban was about to take over Kabul.

Mohammed went home, where he and his family holed up in their apartment, afraid to venture out in the streets.

“It was a city of ghosts,” Mohammed said. “Everyone was so scared to go out.”

The country of Afghanistan, he said, had become a “physical and mental prison” for the 38 million people living there.

Realizing they had to get out as soon as possible, Mohammed took his family, without any luggage, to the Kabul airport, only to find a throng of people desperately trying to flee. While his brother helped his wife protect the children, Mohammed maneuvered his way through the unruly crowd to one of the U.S. Marines who was checking papers. He showed the visas and then pointed to his huddled family.

Eventually, three Marines helped the family make their way through the mob. After several tense hours of waiting, they boarded a U.S. Air Force plane headed for Qatar. From there, they flew to Virginia and, after several days in a hotel, they finally got clearance to travel to California, where Mohammed and his wife have relatives.

One of Mohammed's children wears a donated Hanukkah T-shirt. (Photo/Michael Fox)
One of Mohammed’s children wears a donated Hanukkah T-shirt. (Photo/Michael Fox)

When the family first arrived in California, they lived with his wife’s sister and her family in Antioch, all of them crammed into a modest home. Though it was uncomfortable, they were at least with loved ones. Mohammed’s wife was happy to reunite with her sister, whom she hadn’t seen for six years.

Mina Walizada, a JFCS employee who has been working with Mohammed and his family, said the first big hurdle was finding an apartment.

“It’s very challenging to find housing for our clients,” said Walizada, who emigrated from Afghanistan 16 years ago. “They are really hard-working people, but they don’t have credit and they’re not qualified for affordable housing.”

Finally, the agency lined up an apartment in Concord. What followed was a flurry of medical appointments, shopping trips and meetings at the children’s three schools to get everyone settled into their new lives.

Mohammed’s oldest son, who understands and can speak a little English, is finding his way at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord. He hopes to join the school’s soccer team, something he didn’t have at his school in Kabul. The younger children don’t speak English and are enrolled in English-language classes at local elementary and middle schools.

But Mohammad worries about his mother and siblings back home in Afghanistan.

“Every day, I’m calling them, asking them what the situation is,” he said. “From the windows, they see the Taliban taking people to prison. They say, ‘We are scared.’”

Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay is seeking cash donations and household/family items. Visit jfcs-eastbay.org, contact Ami Dodson at (925) 927-2000 or [email protected], or check out the JFCS Amazon wishlist.

Rachele Kanigel
Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel is a freelance writer and chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University.