This blog post is an adaptation of a recent social media post by AILA member and volunteer Spojmie Nasiri:
As I sat down in my seat on the plane, I closed my eyes to reflect on my seventh and final trip to the various military bases housing 85,000 Afghan refugees over the course of the last five months. I and so many other immigration attorneys and advocates have been filling a need to help counsel the evacuees and try and help them navigate our labyrinthine immigration system after leaving everything they know behind them.
Filled with so many mixed emotions and lost in my thoughts, I let out a deep sigh behind my mask, not realizing anyone would hear me. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and the lovely lady sitting next to me asked if I was OK.
Embarrassed and caught off guard, I quickly assured her I was OK. She asked me my name and told me her name was Lan. She asked me if I was in New Jersey for work and I simply answered yes. I was lost in my own thoughts again and didn’t feel like talking.
A few minutes later, she asked me what kind of work I did. I told her I was an immigration lawyer and I was in New Jersey providing legal assistance to Afghan refugees. With the utmost affection, she put her arm on my shoulder and said “I am about to cry, I am one of those boat people from Vietnam.” She continued, ”Seeing those Afghan people running onto planes at the airport in Afghanistan made me so sad and reminded me of how my people suffered.”
I felt my eyes tear up and a lump in my throat. Truly Allah brings people together in his own ways. Brought together by fate, here we were on a plane, two immigrants sharing our stories, our different journeys to America. Putting aside my own thoughts and emotions, I encouraged her to tell me more. It was a story full of details and heartache.
70 years old now, Lan left Vietnam at the age of 25. She was taken to Australia on a boat, alone without her family. She was the oldest of 11 siblings and she was the only one her parents could financially afford to get out of Vietnam. For years she worked in Australia; she then came to the U.S. as a data IT worker on an employment visa, got her green card and became a U.S. citizen. She spent years working and supporting her large family in Vietnam. With pride, she told me she saved money to get each of her 10 other siblings out of Vietnam. She teared up telling me “Afghans need to have hope as this is the only thing that will get them through this difficult journey. I never imagined I would ever see my family, especially my parents again in Vietnam. I held on to hope, I worked hard and supported my family all those years ago and I finally got to see them again in Vietnam. Who would have imagined that when I left Vietnam? Tell your Afghan people hope will get them through.” I sat there in silence, taking in all her wisdom.
While many of the Vietnamese refugees escaped by boat, their journey at sea was perilous as the refugees faced dehydration, starvation, bad weather and rough seas. Countless perished at sea. Like them, the Afghan refugees endured unimaginable difficulties during the chaotic and dangerous evacuation from Kabul Airport in August 2021
Hundreds of thousands waited days amidst the chaos and dangerous conditions. As my clients and thousands of others sought their way through the unimaginable and dangerous crowds, they endured beatings by the Taliban with whips and sticks. Many fought their way through tear gas, extortions, and even a suicide bombing. Wives, children and elderly mothers and fathers were separated from their loved ones amidst the mayhem and left behind in Afghanistan. The images of death and destruction shared with me via WhatsApp during the evacuation are hard to forget. Some told me if hell existed on earth, it was at the Kabul Airport during the dangerous evacuation of August 2021.
Like my fellow Vietnamese brothers and sisters and other immigrants, current Afghan refugees who arrive to foreign shores will face similar struggles to learn a new language and a new culture, secure adequate housing and find the financial means to support themselves and their families as they resettle in small and large cities.
Here in the U.S., over the last six months, many Vietnamese Americans in the Bay Area and all across the United States have been supportive of the Afghan refugees and have provided much needed assistance in resettlement. Many in addition to Lan have told me that watching Afghans running and being packed onto military planes at the Kabul Airport reminded them of similar experiences they and their families experienced decades ago.
Because of their own experiences, the urge to help has led to people organizing fundraisers, offering their homes, furnishing apartments, providing cooked meals, starting political advocacy campaigns and building coalitions with other organizations to support the newly arrived Afghan refugees. Many have reached out me and said “I just cannot sit back and do nothing, tell me how I can help the Afghan refugees.”
In coalition building across the Bay Area, our Vietnamese brothers and sisters have stepped up to pay it forward. Like Lan and many other immigrants before us, I can truly say that many of us immigrants are all in the place we are today because decades ago, people from all walks of life with love in their hearts and compassion stepped up to help us when we needed it the most. We are the product of those selfless acts of kindness which will never be forgotten and for which we are forever grateful.
Indeed, with hardship comes ease. I have no doubt with Allah’s guidance, hope, patience and perseverance, these Afghan refugees will flourish in this land of opportunity like all those before them. No doubt, they are not alone in their journey to America. In Lan’s words, “hope is all we have to keep us going.”