Afghan Group Braces for Surge of Refugees

Some of the women working with the non-profit Women for Afghan Women posed near their shelters in Fresh Meadows, Queens. (Photo courtesy of Women for Afghan Women)

Midway through the word, Husneia Qurbani took a moment to think. Then she finished triumphantly: “B-A-N-I.” She smiled, pleased, and said a few words in her native Pashtu.

“She says she just learned how to spell her name last week,” said Yalda Atif Afif, a fellow Afghan expatriate who stepped in to translate at the Queens-based non-profit Women for Afghan Women, where Qurbani takes English lessons.

Qurbani, 58, the wife of an Afghan political refugee, left Afghanistan during the civil war that led to the Taliban’s rise to power. She has been living in New York for over two decades, but she never learned English. As a stay-at-home mother of five, she said, she did not see the need.

“I had never taken any classes of anything before,” she said through her translator. “I had never been to school, so it did not even cross my mind for a long time.”

Founded in 2001 by an Indian woman, Sunita Viswanath, Women for Afghan Women divides its efforts between the U.S. and Afghanistan. In New York, it offers accommodation in dorm-style shelters and apartments for families in Queens, as well as free English and computer classes and advice on immigration issues and healthcare. Perhaps most importantly, it offers a social outlet, companionship for Afghan women who find themselves adrift in the United States.

In Kabul, the group reaches out to women suffering abuse or domestic violence, and offers legal assistance, shelter and help emigrating if necessary.

New York City is home to 5,000 people born in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. Late last year, President Obama announced the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, with the 10,000 troops that left at the end of last year, and another 30,000 to return before his summer.

Naheed Bahram, a program manager for Women for Afghan Women, said the organization is bracing for an influx of refugees over the next six months. The troop withdrawal, she said, will likely lead to a reversal of the gains women have experienced in the region since the war began.

“With the fall of the Taliban, the situation improved slightly and women stopped fleeing the country,” she explained. “But with the American troops leaving, people are worried, and scared of what’s going to happen in the country.”

With the expected surge of new Afghan immigrants, the Queens branch of the organization is preparing for the possibility that it may have to expand its shelters to accommodate more people. “We will adapt as people start arriving,” Bahram said.

In 2010, almost all – 96 percent – of the city’s Afghan immigrants lived in Queens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The Fresh Meadows neighborhood where they are clustered is commonly known as “Little Afghanistan.” Women for Afghan Women moved to the neighborhood in 2010 from Flushing.

Since the organization was founded, thousands of women have come through the doors of the non-profit in Queens, including 62 victims of domestic violence. This year, 42 639 women are using their services in New York, while over 200 are working with the organization in Afghanistan, according to organizers.

“It was gradual,” said Bahram. “It took a while to gain the trust of the community.”

Although she is homesick for Afghanistan, Bahram, 36 32, who moved to New York in 2006 to marry a business owner she had never met before, said she would not return to her home country now.

“Of course I still miss it, and my in-laws and one my sisters still live there,” she said. “But it is not worth it, leaving everything we have to go to the uncertainty that is Afghanistan today.”

After she moved to New York, Bahram enrolled in Queens College to pursue a BA in Economics. She joined Women for Afghan Women in 2007 as a volunteer, when one of her professors suggested as a way for her to meet fellow Afghan expats. She fell in love with the organization and after a year she started working there full-time, first as an assistant and then as a program manager.

“I was having such trouble adjusting to living in the U.S.,” she said. “When I started working at Women for Afghan Women, I didn’t feel lonely anymore.”

Bahram said she is inspired by many of the women she has worked with through the non-profit, and mentioned several in particular: Kahtia, for example, who fled Afghanistan to escape an arranged marriage with a man 30 years her senior; and Huma, whose mother saved her from a sadist husband who held her captive.

But the case that brings tears to her eyes is the story of Nilab Nusrat, the organization’s latest and biggest success.

Nusrat is a 15-year-old girl who spent the last two and a half years in prison in Kabul. By Afghan law, she had to accompany her mother, accused of causing her husband’s death, though she maintains that he committed suicide. Two years ago, Nusrat was released and taken with her two siblings to the Women for Afghan Women’s shelter in Kabul. She started attending school, and her outstanding academic performance made her stand out as a star student with aspirations.

And so, late last year, Nusrat came to the US to speak at the organization’s 10th anniversary gala and at several schools in New York. During her visit, she landed a three-year scholarship to the private high school The Putney School, in Vermont.

“Nilab is an example for everybody, a proof of strength and determination,” said Bahram. “She has a bright future in front of her, we just helped her get to it.”

In January, Nusrat moved to the U.S., Bahram said. She was not available for an interview.

“There are other girls out there like Nilab,” Bahram said. “All we can do is to be there for them when they need us. That is basically our reason of being.”

Editor’s note: Based on information conveyed after publication, the article above has been corrected in several places. Voices of NY regrets the errors.

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