From Afghanistan to S.C.: A refugee’s story

Noor Amiri, 27, poses outside Lutheran Services Carolinas in Columbia. Amiri and his family are refugees from Afghanistan whom Lutheran Services Carolinas helped transition to life in the United States.

Self-reliance.

That’s Noor Amiri’s favorite part about American culture.

“American people want to stand on their own feet. They don’t want to rely on somebody else. Even the girl or boy — it doesn’t matter,” he said. “That’s the good part for me.”

And in many ways, 27-year-old Amiri embodies that up-from-your-bootstraps, Horatio Alger myth of hard work and survival. A few years ago, Amiri was an interpreter in his home country of Afghanistan, avoiding roadside IEDs in U.S. military convoys. Today, he’s among 1,800 refugees who have resettled in South Carolina since 2002, striving for a better life for his family.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris, committed by Islamic State militants, President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his plan to welcome 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians, to the United States next year. Meanwhile, a slew of Republicans governors, including South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, a former supporter of Syrian resettlement, have vowed to ban them from their states for fear of terrorists masquerading as refugees, fleeing from civil war and persecution.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill suspending the resettlement program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees unless national security agencies can prove they pose no risk, making an already rigorous vetting process nearly impossible to clear.

The furor confounds Amiri.

“Those people are suffering from war, from injustice, from cruelty so we need to help them. We need to be open-minded,” he said. “Human-beings are related. We need each other’s help.”

A ‘famous’ face

Amiri grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. His father was a truck driver while his mother tended to their 10 children. Amiri was just a boy when the Taliban seized Kabul. He was a teenager when U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban out. He learned English at private language institute in the city, became fascinated with American culture. When he found out the U.S. Army and NATO were hiring Afghan interpreters, he jumped at the chance to apply.

In 2009, at the age of 21, he was hired by the Army, first as an instructor for the Afghan National Army, teaching soldiers how to drive safely in convoy, and later, an interpreter for Afghan and American special forces. In that role, Amiri worked alongside troops, gathering intelligence from villagers and their elders about enemy movement. It was a challenging, dangerous job. Amiri once watched a Humvee explode on the road in front of him. And through his work, Amiri said, his “face was kind of famous.”

“It was very, very difficult to protect ourselves, especially when we’re traveling outside the bases or outside the job,” he said. “We were listening on the radios that (translators) are the first target for them.”

In June 2011, Obama announced that 33,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the summer of 2012. As the war started to wind down, Amiri said he got nervous. He thought of his new wife, Mina, and their a 1-year-old son, Mustafa.

“I felt I can’t give him everything in Afghanistan because I was in danger,” Amiri said.

At the end of 2012, Amiri applied for refugee status. Four months later, he found out his application was denied; he didn’t submit a piece of paperwork. Amiri tried again, but this time, through the Special Immigrant Visa program, available to Iraqi and Afghan translators who served with the armed forces. Eight months later, at the end of 2013, the U.S. Embassy granted his visa. It was official: Amiri and his family were moving to the other side of the world.

On June 24, 2014, Amiri and his family landed in the United States. The trip, Amiri said, was “long and boring.” His wife was seven months pregnant. His son was an antsy 3-year-old.

At JFK International Airport in New York, they were greeted by staff from the International Organization for Migration. That’s when Amiri learned where they were headed: Columbia, S.C.

Amiri expected to stay in New York or go to Virginia, California or Texas, states where he’d heard other Afghan families had been resettled. He’d never heard of Columbia.

“I was saying, ‘No, I don’t want to go! I don’t know anyone there! I’m going to be by my own self!’ My wife and kids, they needed someone to talk to them and welcome them,” Amiri recalls. “There was no any other option.”

It was almost midnight when they arrived in Columbia. Staff from Lutheran Services Carolinas picked his family up at the airport. The next morning, they drove them to their new home, a small apartment facing the woods on Broad River Road.

For more than two decades, Lutheran Community Services was the only agency in South Carolina resettling refugees, between 150 and 200 every year from such countries as Myanmar, Bhutan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, this past spring, another faith-based refugee resettlement organization, World Relief, opened a branch in Spartanburg.

That’s when the backlash started.

The phone in Lindsey Seawell’s office at Lutheran Church of the Reformation started to ring every week. Anonymous callers would ask Seawell, a refugee services coordinator for LSC, not to resettle any Syrians. They’d ask her if she could “send people back.” They’d tell her they “don’t want any Muslims to come,” Seawell said, and she would calmly explain: “‘We gladly welcome them,’ and they usually don’t like that answer.”

“Honestly, I think for me personally, what I believe is that we are to love the stranger and sojourner and we are to care for them,” she said. “My motivation is my faith and what I believe God has asked me to do, and how he’s asked me to live my life.”

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Religious nonprofits such as LSC contract with the federal government to provide services to refugees. LSC helps newly arrived families obtain housing, arrange doctor appointments, enroll in social service programs, learn to use public transportation and apply for jobs.

“The entire overarching goal of refugee resettlement,” Seawell said, “is self-sufficiency.”

The federal government provides resettlement agencies only $925 per refugee to help pay for rent, food and other supplies for the first 30 days. LSC relies on volunteers, who donate mattresses, pillows, blankets and kitchen tables, to make up the difference.

After one year, refugees can apply for a green card. After five years, they can apply for citizenship.

“Moving to the U.S. is like taking 10 steps backwards. You don’t know the culture and the language. The education and experience you have doesn’t always translate in our context. Often refugees think their life will be easier,” Seawell said. “Focusing on the freedom and safety they have I think that’s what keeps them going.”

The first months in Columbia were difficult for Amiri and his family. Mina was heavily pregnant. They didn’t have a car. They missed the markets in Kabul. They longed for families and friends.

Amiri reminded himself: “It’s going to get easier and easier until you can stand on your own feet.”

Through LSC, Amiri and his wife met other Afghan families. Amiri found his own job, working the night shift at CarMax as a detailer. He’s told his bosses he’d eventually like to become a mechanical associate. His wife, meanwhile, is studying with an English tutor at LCS while taking care of their children, including their infant son, Mujtaba or “Yama” for short.

They moved to a new apartment, where the rent is cheaper. They went on a short vacation this summer to Folly Beach. They like visiting Columbia’s Statehouse, their local mosque, parks, barbecue restaurants and zoo — “one of the top 10 in U.S.”

Most of all, Amiri loves how he safe he feels that he’s no longer in danger.

“It was my fortune or destiny— we say ‘faith’ — to come here in South Carolina,” he said. “Right now, I am satisfied.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.

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