Two men sit alone in their stocking feet, their backs resting against opposite walls of an unfurnished second-floor apartment adorned with Islamic posters, signs and religious symbols. The men are Afghan, and this humble place in a dingy garden apartment complex in western Alexandria is a makeshift mosque.
It's 6 p.m. and A.G. Motawakel, 51, slides back the apartment's glass terrace doors that open on to a narrow balcony. At its edge he places a large radio-cassette tape player from which blares a recording of an ageless Islamic call to prayer to the more than 105 Afghan families who live in the Crestview Apartments, located near Landmark Shopping Center.
As the brief call is sounded, Yar Mohmad Mojaddedi, 48, says of his people, "They want to live as Afghans. They don't want to be Americanized. Nobody wants to live in this country."
In the years following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent war, almost 10,000 Afghan refugees have fled their Central Asian nation to live in the United States, according to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Office. About 200 families have settled in Alexandria during those years, city social workers say, and more than half of them live in Crestview.
In fact, so many Afghans live in the 290-unit collection of aging brick apartment buildings, set block after block on a slopping concrete parking lot, that area Afghans have renamed the complex Deh-Afghanan, which means Afghan Village.
The Afghans, as symbolized by their mosque, are tenacious in retaining what they call the Afghan character. Their exile to the United States is seen as a temporary one. One day, they hope, Afghanistan will be rid of the Russians and they will return to start a new.
Meanwhile, they must make a living here. In Alexandria, and particularly for those living in Crestview, that means Afghan helping Afghan to master the English language, to seek work and public assistance, and, most of all, to create an island of Afghan life that gives them a feeling of place amid the broad-shouldered condominiums that stud the hills and valleys of western Alexandria.
Afghans quickly began filling the Crestview apartments when its management two years ago established more liberal application policies making it easier for refugee families to get apartments without references and credit histories.
"I don't believe there is another place like this where so many Afghans live together," says Suraya Tokhi, a 17-year-old Afghan senior at T.C. Williams High School, where Afghans constitute the largest foreign-speaking student group in a school rich in racial and cultural diversity. "When I am here, I feel I am in my own place. I prefer my own way. And since we are away from our own country it is our responisbility to keep the old ways."
But on this night, no one answers the evening call to prayer, one of five during the day. Only Motawakel and Mojaddedi , who, as Iman--or holy man--leads the prayers, face eastward, kneel and ask for Allah's blessings.
Motawakel, the former president of the Health Institute at Kabul University, and Mojaddedi, the former president of Health Planning and the Ministry of Health, are unemployed.
"There are so many working now," Mojaddedi says, explaining the poor attendance.
Life for the Afghan in this country, says Alexandria's refugee services coordinator Jan Vinaya, is uniquely difficult.
"They have their own beliefs and religion," she says. "They used to live well, in a high society. When they come over here they have to live in a small bedroom apartment. And they won't lower their expectations. They are frustrated. They cannot get jobs that would make them able to live independently."
So, explains Mohammed Hassani, a cab driver and one-time scientist and farmer, "the Afghan living together like family, helping one another, giving advice is the biggest help."
But even in Crestview, that often is not enough.
Three years ago, 50-year-old Ghoulam Safdar and his wife were high school teachers. The couple and their five children lived in a 7-bedroom house surrounded with fruit tress and flower beds in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul. "It was good for me," he says in strained English.
Soon after the Moscow-supported Marxist government came into power there in 1978, Safdar's family, like thousands, began to suffer persecution for resisting Communist rule.
The story is the same from so many refugees. First friends and families were jailed, then some disappeared. Stories of massacres spread and then fear grew to near panic. Safdar says if his family had not fled, they probably would all be dead by now.
Today, Safdar is suffering from high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors have warned him not to work. His family says the condition was brought on by worry that consumed him when he couldn't find a job here because his English was poor. Now the family faces the end of the 18 months of welfare benefits extended to most Afghan refugee families.
"They tell me language is always the problem," Safdar says from his living room. "It is a problem. But I hope to teach here."
His 16-year-old son, Nabil, leaves the crowded room for the outdoors. Some sticks and discarded paper become a kite. A spring breeze takes it aloft, and with it seem to soar his hopes.
"I hope to go back to my country to see my friends, my school, my teachers and my relatives," he says. "I hope to go back."