Najib Mohammadi had high hopes for his life in the United States when he, his pregnant wife Susan and two small children left Afghanistan in July 2021.
But for most of the past year, the family lived in a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento and couldn’t find affordable housing in California’s capital. He has trouble finding work.
The former US military interpreter arrived under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program last year, just two weeks before tens of thousands of his fellow Afghans were evacuated when Kabul fell prey to the Taliban. Mohammadi, 37, is lucky to be safe and knows that he is better off than others: he speaks English and the SIV program gives his family a path to citizenship. But “it’s a very hard life,” he said.
Earlier this year, an Afghan evacuee living in Pennsylvania who had trained Mohammadi in the Afghan army called and asked if life in Sacramento was easier. Mohammadi said to him, “Don’t come, there is no housing.”
Reuters has followed the Mohammadi family for their first year in the United States and has witnessed their ups and downs as they rebuild their lives.
‘EDUCATION IS LIKE OXYGEN’
In October, Mohammadi found a job recording the repair needs of damaged electronics – the wages were normal and he thought he was finally on his way to stability.
But the company wouldn’t allow him to carry a phone with him while he was at work, and he was concerned about his pregnant wife, Susan, who was then home alone with their two children, Yasar, 1 and Zahra, 2. Susan told him she was worried too. One day in December, when he returned home, he found her unconscious on the floor with the children playing around her, he said. She hadn’t been able to reach him when she began to feel unwell.
He resigned that day.
This spring, Mohammadi enrolled in adult education classes to earn his high school equivalency diploma. Once she learns English, Susan wants to study medicine, which would not have been possible in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. “Education is like oxygen, like food. It is necessary for men and women,” Mohammadi said.
They have discussed enrolling Zahra in kindergarten, but Susan is concerned that her English is not yet strong enough to communicate her teacher needs. She’s picked up some English from cartoons and she’s started to respond with “OK!” and two thumbs up when her parents speak to her in Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan.
Once his financial situation is more stable, Mohammadi also hopes to be able to afford therapy to deal with trauma from his military days. He remembers the cries of women and children as he entered houses in search of insurgents and is relieved that his children will have a different life.
While walking through a Sacramento park with his family this spring, he gestured to the tranquil green lawn and noted how peaceful it was.
“I was born in war and have lived through war,” he said. “The greatest blessing in life is safety.”
BABY ‘100% AMERICAN’
As Susan’s pregnancy progressed, Mohammadi spent hours navigating America’s hospital bureaucracy, making sure his wife would have a female doctor when she gave birth, a religious and cultural non-negotiable one for them. “The system is very complicated. I’m not used to it and sometimes it almost makes me dizzy,” he said at the time.
But after Susan’s water broke in May, on the day of her scheduled induction, they arrived at the hospital to find her doctor was a man. With Susan in labor, they drove 30 minutes to another hospital with a female doctor on duty.
“I told Najib that I will not allow my doctor to be a man even if I die,” she said. “Najib said the merciful God will solve our problem. His words gave me energy.”
Their baby, Yusuf, was born healthy and “100% American”. Susan jokingly calls the baby “Mr. President’.
A few weeks after Susan gave birth, Mohammadi helped another family with a newborn baby navigate the hospital and red tape. In July, Mohammadi took them shopping and shared his groceries with them.
Throughout the year, he was upset and frustrated when he received pleading calls from former Afghan colleagues who worked for the US armed forces, he said, asking him to tell US officials they were still in Afghanistan and to stress that they needed to get out. . Mohammadi didn’t know how to explain that he couldn’t do anything.
Some of his former colleagues in Afghanistan now say they wish they hadn’t risked their lives for US troops, he said.
He is also disappointed, he said, that he has not received more help in the United States, especially with housing. Mohammadi tried to find an alternative apartment, but most landlords needed more references and income statements than he can provide.
Nonprofit organizations helping refugees resettle were overwhelmed by the spike in Afghan arrivals.
“The evacuation made it significantly more difficult to find housing – both temporary and permanent – in the Sacramento area,” said Kevin Buffalino, communications director for the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, which provided resettlement services to Mohammadi. “The influx of people meant almost everything was full.”
In July, Mohammadi underwent appendectomy, which exacerbated the precarious situation.
“After my surgery I thought: if I can’t work, what should I do about my future, about the future of my children?” he said. “I really felt extremely homeless here… I don’t have a stable situation.”
“Any minute,” he said, “I have a problem.”
The most recent issue: a letter informing the family that their rent would soon increase by 10%.
Last month, Mohammadi had an interview for a job as a part-time interpreter via Zoom. He sat on the edge of the bed in their small, sparsely furnished bedroom while Susan argued with Zahra, who was throwing a tantrum, Yasar, and a crying baby Yusuf next door.
He waits to hear back.
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