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Laila Waziri
Laila Waziri
VIDEO: Afghan Refugee Families Adjust to America
Special Coverage: America At War
Live Online Special Coverage: America At War
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America At War:
Afghans Adjust to America
With Laila Waziri, FEMA Counselor
Friday, Dec. 21, 2001; 11 a.m. EST

Since Sept. 11, many Afghan refugee families have struggled with leaving their homeland and seeking refuge in the United States. Approximately 20,000 Afghans live in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, according to the Mustafa Center, an Afghan community mosque located in Annandale, Va.

Laila Waziri, a FEMA counselor and vice president of the International Federation of Afghan Women, assists refugee families in the Northern Virginia area, was online Friday, Dec. 21 at 11 a.m EST to talk about her work with the Afghan community.

Also, view the accompanying Camera Works video: Adjusting to America: Afghan Refugee Families.

Waziri is also an assistant producer for the local television show "Naw Aey Afghan" on channels 10 and 30.

Below is the transcript.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Laila Waziri: Hi. My name is Laila Olumee Waziri. I came to the United States in 1980 from Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. Before that, my uncle was the ambassador to the U.S. and he decided to stay in the U.S and took political asylum because he did not want to work with communists. The Communist Party gave my family in Afghanistan a difficult -- they put one of my uncles and my brother-in-law in jail five times. My dad lost his job with the government. My mother lost her job as a teacher and principal. Once, my sister was in labor pains and on the way to the hospital and the Russian police officer stopped them and they had to check if we were allowed to pass with permission. Every night, no one could go out of their house at eight o'clock at night. Because of this, as my sister was in labor, she gave birth in the car but the baby died by the time she got the permission to go to the hospital.

There was actually no peace in the country for us, so that is why we decided to come to the U.S. because it is a free country and a land of opportunities. Now, I'm a U.S. citizen.

New York, N.Y.: 1. Do you feel that you have gotten a full exposure to the United States so far, or is your life so far very structured around getting used to living a new life?

2. What have you been most surprised about the United States, how has it differed from your previous impressions.

Laila Waziri: Being here for 20 years this is of course like being home for me now. Coming to a different country and culture is not easy. I've been through it and that is why I decided to help the new refugees that come here. Of course, when we came to the U.S. it was a better situation in Afghanistan than these new refugees because they have been through a lot. All they saw was torture, seeing loved ones die for the past 23 years.

Just like when we saw the tragedies of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it brought a lot of bad memories for the refugees, especially for the ones that arrived here because they came to the U.S. for peace and freedom and as soon as they arrived here, they saw the freedom taken also. They are desperate and hopeless and they feel that the war is following them.

That is why I decided to join FEMA because everybody in my community needs counseling.

Laila Waziri: When refugees come here, they expect a new life because when they go to interview at the U.S. embassy they are shown a nice apartment, nice neighborhood and schools, they even show furniture and refrigerator. Many children of the fleeing refugee families work hard selling water, ice, food or even cigarettes on the streets of Pakistan. So they see that the kids don't have to work in the streets anymore.

For the past few months, it's very hard for the refugee families because of the economy and finding housing is the most difficult part. I feel that they were misled by what they were shown at the embassy and what to expect when they come here.

When we go search for housing for them, the rental office says they require an income/job. But many of them can't get a job unless they have a place of residence. And many have a language problem when they get here.

Archdale, N.C.: Do you know the number of Afghan refugees currently residing in the U.S.?

Laila Waziri: It's a lot. Every week, I get a phone call from agencies that are helping new refugees. With the International Fed. of Afghan Women and the Mustafa Center, we get calls from people helping refugee families to find someone to translate and that can help these people. I don't know the exact number but we have a lot, probably more than 10,000 all over the U.S. - hundreds are widows and single moms and children. These women have lost their husbands because of the war and the Taliban.

Alexandria, Va.: I wish the Afghans who come here the best. They work very hard many of them driving cabs or in restaurants.

But I would like to know whether it really helps matters to bring Afghans here to America as refugees.

Wouldn't it be better to help them go home instead?

I am not against Afghans immigrating here on the same basis as everyone else does, but I am not sure that Afghanistan or the United States benefit from bringing Afghan refugees here instead of helping them to return home.

Laila Waziri: Well, before during the Taliban and the past 23 years, it was hard to send them home because they had no home and no life, especially for women in Afghanistan. Women could not work, get a job, and a lot of them lost their husbands in war. We have a lot of widows and orphans who could not get home because the Taliban wouldn't let them back into the country. The Taliban were fundamentalists and would abuse women - they had to be covered from head to toe, not allowed to wear make up, and not allowed to go out. If they went to the street and a small part was skin being shown, the women would be beat. The Taliban did not want the women out on the street and the women could not do anything in Afghanistan.

Now there is hope and a lot of these refugees are hoping to go back.

Manassas, Va.: Laila, How do the refugee's view America during their first year? Is it a mostly positive view or does our culture affront their values too much, I know it does mine at times? I hope that at least most Americans would reach out to befriend them. It must be hard. What can we do to help?

Laila Waziri: Most of the refugees are surprised when they come here because they say that they didn't expect people to be so friendly and nice. They walk out in the street in Virginia and people smile at them and talk nice with them. For the refugees especially being in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they never saw love and respect from the people. For instance, if a child worker would take a break from selling, they would immediately get yelled at and beaten for taking a break.

It's a positive experience when the refugee families come here. To help, you can just be nice and friendly with the refugees and don't treat them like an estranged foreigner. You can also write to the government to support the refugees for the first few months when they arrive such as temporary housing until they can established and adopted to the country. These families work so hard and they are willing to work and get a job but it takes time for them to get adopted to the culture here and explain their basic needs.

Laila Waziri: Maybe something similar to Europe. Europe has a very good system for refugees. They provide them temporary shelter and language classes that are mandatory. If the refugees get temporary help from the government, they have to take these mandatory training and language classes. This would be good model for the U.S. government in helping refugees.

Alexandria, Va.: Federal authorities have at times asked immigrants to report suspicious activities at their mosques. Would you advise your clients to cooperate with authorities when requested to do so?

How does any mosque, including the Afghan one in Northern Virginia, avoid becoming infested with radicals or terrorists the way some Jersey City and Brooklyn mosques were?

Laila Waziri: Well we had no problem with our mosque because first of all, the people in the community know us and since Sept. 11 tragedies, the Afghan community was very active in fundraising for the Red Cross, we invited churches to come to our mosque to explain that Afghans were not involved in this act and were not terrorist. Especially being a Muslim, in Islam it does not allow to kill innocent people. In the Koran, it says repeatedly that you are not allowed to take innocent life and suicide is the biggest crime. If you commit suicide, you don't go to heaven and you go straight to hell because it is God's right to take away a life and not a human's decision.

We had Senator Davis come to the mosque and talk to the community. We had neighborhood churches that came to the mosque and the Imam of the mosque going to other churches on Sundays and talk to people about our religion and our belief.

Recently, I and other members of the Int'l Fed. of Afghan women and other Muslim to the White House on Dec. 11 and we met President Bush and the First Lady to show support in remembering Sept. 11 tragedies. At the Mustafa Center, we had a candlelight vigil and a memorial ceremony for Sept. 11. We have also participated with other churches for different cultural events.

Fairfax, Va.: I just wanted to say Thank you Laila jan for your enthusiasm and commitment in helping the Afghan community.


Laila Waziri: You're welcome.

Welcome, Md.: Ms. Waziri,

First I would like to say I am glad you found peace here in the United States. I feel so sorry for the tragedy your people face in your homeland. We all pray that our president will offer a chance for your people to find peace at home.

I applaud the way you help others adjust to our way of life, I know it is not easy. Keep up the good work and never lose faith.

Laila Waziri: Thank you. I was invited to the National Museum of Art for Women when President Bush was signing the bill for helping the Afghan women and children and we met Mrs. Clinton. She was very very nice and she gave us her support and said that she was there for us. And also, we met Jo Ann Glieck, the mother of one of the people who saved the plane that was heading for the White House and crashed in Pennsylvania. While she was crying, she gave us hugs and told us that she knows our pain and how hard it is for us. She wanted us to come to Philadelphia to talk about our country and culture because a lot of people are interested to know more about Afghanistan. I hope to visit her soon.

Dammam, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Ms. Laila Waziri,
Salaam Alaikum, I appreciate what you are doing out there for the Afghan Community and pray to God to help you in your efforts. I am a Muslim from India working in Saudi Arabia. What I would like to know is how are you going to educate the toddlers and the primary grade children about the true values and principles of Islam and its bounties? I would like to have serious and continuous discussions and sharing of opinion with you in future, too.

Laila Waziri: I am a Muslim woman living in the U.S. and I do everything that is required in Muslim. I am covering and wear hijab and take my kids to take Islamic classes at the mosque. I try to teach my children about my religion and do my best.
If you teach your children the right Islam, the right religion, they won't be too extreme. Islam is a religion of peace. My kids already know that.

Once my eight year old son went to school and one of his American friend asked where he was from. He told him that he was from Afghanistan. This student called my son a terrorist and my son replied "I'm not a terrorist" and went to the teacher and asked her to explain to the other kids that he was not a terrorist. I had taught my kids that when others call you names to not to fight with them.
The teacher and the counselor talked to the other boy and found out that he didn't really know what a terrorist was. So the other student apologized to my son. And then I found out from the teacher and the counselor what had happened. My son didn't tell me because he didn't want me to be worried.

Vienna, Va.: I have always wondered how the process works. For example, how would an individual in Afghanistan gain access to an airport in order to travel? What about passports?

Once in the states, how could a family secure housing, food, etc. without an income?

Unless they know English, how could they even apply for employment?

It seems that the difficulties are enormous. Are programs like these funded by charities and businesses?

Laila Waziri: The refugees cannot get a passport to leave the country. They go to a neighboring country like Pakistan and Iran by walking. Then they have to be in the neighborhood country for a while - for years before they get to the U.S. or Europe. They have to apply to refugee or U.N. agencies or somehow find sponsorships or apply to visa lotteries. If they get accepted, they are asked if some of them have a family or friend in the U.S. so that these agencies will send them to the same city. Some refugees are free cases where they are sent to any city or state because they have no family in the U.S.

When they get here to the U.S., most of the refugees contact the person that they know in the U.S. Usually the friends are the ones who put up temporary housing for the refugees-- which can be difficult if there is a refugee family of five.

When there is a new refugee family in the area, we get a phone call for help. Then we, the Int'l Fed. of Afghan Women, go and help them along with other new Afghan community groups. We go apartment searching for them by calling and meeting the rental offices. We also try to find Afghan business owners to cosign the families to get a place to live. Usually we take them to social services and then on a job search usually within the Afghan community because they don't know English. We also get donations like clothing and furniture from the mosque and the Muslim community. And then we just try to support them that way.

Laila Waziri: After Sept. 11, the Afghan community grew closer together and there are more volunteers and collections of toys for kids, groceries, clothes to assist new families that arrive.

Alexandria, Va.: If I wanted to donate clothes for the refugees where could I drop them off? - Ms. Quraishi

Laila Waziri: Right now, the families need more household items than clothes because of the amount of clothes we received from a clothing drive. You can call the US-ARC (U.S. Afghanistan Reconstruction) at 1-800-516-USARC to drop off donations.

New York, N.Y.: Hi Laila, I have a question about Afghanis -- do they view themselves as "Afghanis" first and foremost or do they view themselves as "Pashtuns," "Tajiks," "Uzbeks," etc.? Is there really a sense of Afghan national identity that can unite the people or is it inevitable that there will be ethnic squabbling? THANKS

Laila Waziri: All Afghans are considered Afghans. Most Afghans like myself do not want to be categorized by ethnic groups. We are all from the same country and are considered as Afghans.

Laila Waziri: Thank you for your questions. I'm here to help and you can always contact me through phone calls or emails (laila_waziri@hotmail.com) or you can contact me at US-ARC (contact@us-arc.org). We still have a lot more refugee families to come, such as widows and orphans. Most are hopeful for the new Afghan government to return home. However the widows and orphans are scared to go back home. I hope that the U.S. government can assist better by providing temporary housing and training classes for language and work training for the new refugees.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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