WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of the violence.
Hundreds of Afghans are starting a new life in the United States after fleeing the Taliban. What advice do other former refugees living in the United States have for them about what awaits them?
When Dauda Sesay, a Louisiana resident, was 16, she watched as her father was executed in front of her eyes.
He was out playing with friends when the rebels attacked and lined up the children to cut off his hands. The father immediately rushed to the scene to save them.
“He knelt down and pleaded for us to leave the children alone,” she told the BBC. “Those were my father’s last words … unfortunately, he was shot while filing his case.”
Mr. Sesay survived. After he was shot in the leg and lost consciousness, international forces rescued him and transported him to Gambia, leaving behind a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone that also claimed his younger sister’s life.
At the end of his 30s, Sesay is one of more than three million refugees and asylum seekers who have found new homes in the United States since 1975.
Many, like Mr. Sesay, arrived in the United States after leaving lands devastated by war and civil strife, such as Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. Still others are fleeing repressive governments, instability or simply absolute poverty. In many cases, it is a combination of these factors.
The number of new refugees in the United States is expected to double following the Biden administration’s decision raise the refugee admission ceiling to 125,000 for the 2022 fiscal year which began on October 1. It had already been increased from 15,000 to 62,500 in early May.
Newcomers are likely to include thousands of Afghans who do not meet the minimum requirements of the US Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program available to those who have helped the US military. The State Department said other Afghans at risk will have “better access” to the US refugee admission program.
As these newcomers begin to navigate life in America, refugees already in the United States say they can’t help but think about their own experiences coming to the country – the good, the bad and the ugly.
“We look at each other and have one thing in common,” said Sesay, who is now on the board of the defense organization Refugee Congress and is president of the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants.
“In one way or another, each of us was forced to flee and seek safety.”
A shock to the system
After nine years in a refugee camp in Gambia, Mr. Sesay and his wife, another refugee, were resettled to the United States by the UN. When they arrived in Louisiana in 2009, Mr. Sesay recalls that fewer than 10 families from Sierra Leone lived there.
“There is that excitement of coming, that you are leaving a refugee camp and traveling to the United States,” he recalled. “But after a while you start getting to the reality of the earth.”
Mr. Sesay said he quickly realized that the United States is extremely different culturally from its homeland, a problem that plagues refugees from many parts of the globe.
For example, in Sierra Leone, looking the elderly in the eye when they speak is a sign of disrespect, “but here, if you don’t, it seems like you’re not being honest,” he stressed.
His early feelings of isolation worsened when he entered college, where he was bullied by a professor who refused to call him by name. “I was making my late father’s dream come true,” he said. “Instead I had this obstacle, this teacher who insulted me. He almost made me leave school”.
Eventually his comrades intervened.
Lubab Al-Quraishi, an Iraqi refugee in New Jersey, recalled a moment of shock when a woman at a Walmart started verbally insulting her for wearing a traditional hijab.
“He was criticizing and shouting at me. I was so scared. He told me to go back to my country,” Ms. Al Quraish said.
He had mixed feelings about America.
On the one hand, she was relieved that her family had managed to leave Iraq, where she narrowly escaped an attempt on her life in 2009 on her way to work at Baghdad Medical College.
“I don’t know why they wanted to kill me. Nobody was immune,” he said. “When it became a matter of life or death, it was time to leave. I had children and a family.”
His newfound confidence came at a cost.
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In Iraq she lived the life of a professional as a physician and assistant professor of medicine – complete with a large house and two cars – in the United States she was resettled in a rundown area of Houston.
His education and medical experience meant nothing in his new home. To support herself, she began working as a drive-thru counter at a chicken fast food restaurant, followed by stints in a bakery and as a pharmacy cashier.
“I felt like I had been insulted for years,” she said. “Nobody would look at me like a doctor. Nobody gave me a chance.”
Over time, Ms. Al Quraishi has returned to medicine from a basic position, first as a pharmaceutical technician and now as a licensed pathologist assistant.
Even 10 years after arriving and becoming a US citizen, Ms. Al Quraishi said she still doesn’t feel at home.
“I don’t feel like I belong. I’m a citizen, but I still feel I’m not welcome,” she said. “There are some places I can’t go to because of my hijab. People will look at me.”
“Parents must understand”
Jessi Calzado-Esponda, a resident of Washington DC, recalled, more than anything else, a feeling of confusion.
In 1995 – at the age of seven – Ms. Calzado-Esponda was rescued at sea on a raft along with 16 other people who fled Cuba. After seven months in a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay, she and her grandmother moved to Florida.
“It happens in the blink of an eye,” she said of the change from a life surrounded by an extended family to a new and unknown one suddenly imposed on her. “It was a very traumatizing experience.”
“No one has ever explained to me why I spent six days on a raft, then in a refugee camp and in another country,” he said.
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UN data suggests that up to a quarter of all refugee children worldwide suffer from loneliness and depression, as well as high rates of anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Problems are often aggravated by bullying and other forms of social exclusion.
George Tarr, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Liberia at the age of seven, said he experienced this firsthand when he started school in New York City.
“We faced a lot of discrimination. It was shocking to me because it came from people of the same skin color as us,” she said. “There was a lot of bullying … I fought a lot with other kids.”
Young refugees face unique challenges and Afghan newcomers should, as much as possible, help their children by using all the resources that may be available to young people, Ms. Calzado-Esponda said.
“They can get the mental health help their families need,” she said. “Those conversations need to happen so that the children understand that they are in a safer environment.”
Make a home
Looking at the expected influx of Afghan and other refugees into American communities following Biden’s decision to raise the refugee ceiling, many past refugees believe their experiences can serve as a lesson for newcomers.
Ms Al Quraishi, for example, said she would advise arriving refugees – many of whom will leave respected professions in Afghanistan – to “work with dignity”, whatever they find themselves doing.
“I would tell them: work on yourself. Invest every penny you can bring from your home country,” he said. “Nobody will help you in the United States to build your new life.”
Others, like Tarr, say they believe new refugees should be willing to ask for help, even if it means overcoming cultural differences or fear of the unknown.
“Try to learn as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When we first came here, many strangers helped us,” she said. “The people here are actually very friendly and very welcoming. Don’t be afraid. People are actually more willing to help than you will ever know.”
Mr. Sesay said he finally felt at home when he began celebrating festive occasions – such as Thanksgiving or Ramadan – with people in his new home.
“All of these things bring back memories,” he said. “It’s just in a different way.”
There is little advice anyone can give to refugees working to overcome persistent trauma in a country completely different from their own, he said, but willpower “will go a long way.”
But the new refugees are not alone. “Others have been in these situations and have managed to survive,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”
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This Article is Sourced from BBC News. You can check the original article here: Source