By Kathreen Harrison
When Babrak and Paikar Jalali pushed their way through surging crowds and teargas at Kabul Airport on August 21, 2021, they were desperate to get away from their troubled homeland before the Taliban regime clamped down and escape was no longer possible. With them that day were their three terrified young daughters, and members of the extended family, including elderly parents and a disabled sibling, all trying to get out of the country – along with thousands of others thronging the tarmac that day.
None of the Jalalis knew if they would make it onto an airplane, and they didn’t know where the plane would take them if they did succeed. In the end, through a combination of sheer determination, luck, and who knows what else, 15 family members did make it to safety. Among the 15 were Paikar, Babrak, and their three young daughters. The elderly parents and disabled sibling did not, and remain in Kabul, to the unending sorrow of the family.
Recently, sitting together on a comfortable sofa in their cozy apartment in Maine, Paikar and Babrak recalled the events of that day. Despite the traumatic memories, their joyful spirits and optimism shine through. Paikar, whose English is more advanced than Babrak’s, translated for him when needed.
The plane took the evacuees to Qatar for the night.
“The girls had no shoes!” Paikar and Babrak remembered, laughing – they had lost them in the chaos of the escape. Then came 10 nights in Germany, where they learned they would be going on to the U.S.
“Before we came here, we just saw the United States in movies. We thought it would be like that, like the movies; we thought that all around us there would be high buildings!” Paikar said.
After Germany, they spent one night at an army base in Virginia, and then were moved to Fort McCoy, an army base in Wisconsin, which housed a total of 13,000 Afghan evacuees, where they lived for the next three months.
The Jalalis were astonished by their first sight of the U.S.
“We asked people, ‘Is this the U.S.?’ This does not look like the U.S.,” Paikar recalled.
In Afghanistan, Paikar had been an English language teacher in schools. On the base, she quickly felt called to help not only her family but the other evacuees, most of whom spoke no English at all and knew nothing about the U.S. Her dedication to helping did not go unnoticed. On November 15, 2021 at the end of their stay, when the family was preparing to leave the base and be resettled, SFC Daniel Ryan wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation on U.S. Department of the Army stationery.
“Paikar was instrumental in providing English lessons to a staggering 200 adult and school-aged children seven days a week for twelve hours a day … [her] downright Herculean effort was on full display. … Paikar’s performance at this installation is downright inspiring and a shining example for all to follow … she is a person of exceptional moral fiber and immaculate character,” the letter said.
Afghans were resettled from the bases in towns and cities all over the country. For the Jalalis, Maine would become home. The Lewiston-based nonprofit Maine Immigrant Refugee Services (MEIRS) was on its way to becoming a “community partner” of the federal refugee program at the time of the evacuations from Afghanistan, and they were put in charge of the family’s resettement. Now, two years later, MEIRS is officially one of three full resettlement agencies in Maine, alongside long-time resettlement agency Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services and Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.
Abdikadir Negeye , their caseworker, found temporary housing for the whole family in a wooded area of Greene while he looked for a longer-term housing solution.
But the word “temporary” was not in the family’s vocabulary yet, and they misunderstood and believed they would be living in Greene permanently. The children, who were used to the bustling capital city of Kabul, were scared by the isolation, and cried that they would not be able to go to school if they lived in such a rural area. Eventually, Paikar understood that Greene would not be their permanent home, and through their networks they learned that people liked living in Lewiston: the crime rate was low there, and the schools were good. Housing was hard to find, but eventually Abdi located an apartment, which they liked, except that marijuana users frequented the downstairs entryway and the fire escape outside their window.
Babrak and Paikar recalled their first days in the apartment. “Our life was zero. We started with one carpet, one blanket, and two beds,” Paikar said.
Babrak corrected her, “No, not real beds,” he said.
Paikar agreed, saying “No, just mattresses.”
But they said Abdikhadir helped them a lot. He took them shopping for necessities, got the kids enrolled in school, and enrolled the adults in Adult Education English classes. But the same resourcefulness and determination the Jalalis had demonstrated in making it onto that airplane in August 2021 came into play again in Lewiston, and they reached out for assistance from other sources as well as MEIRS. Someone suggested they write to Amjambo Africa, and they did, messaging the Facebook page.
“I sent the message that ‘We are new. We are from Afghanistan. We need help,’ ” Paikar said. The editor answered the message, and through a family connection of a member of the community group Connecting Across Cultures (CAC), based in the midcoast, made an introduction to Whitney Condit, a resident of Lewiston. “And that changed our life. Whitney helped us so much. Anything we needed we told her, and she helped,” Paikar said. CAC provided help in other ways as well, including some financial assistance, and donations of winter clothing and furniture.
Condit reached out to people she knew in Lewiston, such as Craig Tribuno, the co-owner of the Italian restaurant Davinci’s. He offered Babrak a job, and the match proved a good fit. Babrak is a whiz with his hands, and with tools – back in Kabul he had owned an auto body shop, and had also built his own house – and before long he became indispensable at the restaurant.
Babrak and Paikar work multiple jobs. Babrak drives a van for MEIRS, delivering clients to immigration appointments in Portland when needed. And recently, he started his own handyman business, which he is determined to grow. His clients are happy with his work, he said: “When I work for them, I work hard, and they tell me I work more than other people.”
In addition to Craig Tribuno and Whitney Condit, the family is grateful to Yasin Khuram, known as “Billy,” who arrived in Maine 25 years ago from Pakistan and now owns a gas station, store, and laundromat. When they first met, Khuram said he had promised God that he would help any person who needed it. Until the Jalalis had their own vehicle, he drove them where they needed to go, even as far as New York and Boston – and not just Babrak’s and Paikar’s family, but Paikar’s brother’s family as well.
The Jalalis can’t say enough good things about Rilwan Osman, Executive Director of MEIRS, whom they praise for his tireless work on behalf of all his clients. “He is such a nice and kind person for our family,” Babrak said.
“Yes, Rilwan helps everyone, whoever needs help,” Paikar agreed. ”He works alot.”
The two older girls are one month into their second year at Geiger Elementary School. Last year was rough, because of the language gap, but this year is starting well. They like their teachers and their English has improved. They ride the school bus and said they get along with the other kids at Geiger and have lots of friends. But when it comes to food, the girls take their own lunches because they said they prefer their mother’s cooking to school food. Recently, the family has moved to another, larger apartment.
Paikar’s three sisters, and a brother and his family, all also live and work in Lewiston – at FedEx and L.L. Bean. To help combat the loneliness of losing a homeland, and to celebrate their culture, the family has a friendship group of seven or eight Afghan families which gathers several times a year to share Afghan food and enjoy Afghan music and dance. And sometimes they all just meet at the playground. And Paikar speaks with her mother twice a day, morning and night, which helps the sadness of the separation. Because of the time difference, “Our morning is their night,” she explained.
The Jalalis keep in close touch with others back home. “They all cry about having to stay in Afghanistan,” Paikar said, explaining that life under the Taliban is very hard. Men who had any connection at all with the previous government can’t work for fear they will be punished, and since women are not allowed to work outside the home now, scarcity is the name of the day. To compound the misery, girls can’t continue their education beyond sixth grade, and some girls they know must now stay home. “When we talk with them they are crying, they say, ‘You are really lucky, you are going to school, you have food, you have a backpack.’ ”
Babrak and Paikar work actively to make sure the girls don’t lose touch with their origins. Afghan television is usually on in the background in the house, the family all speak Dari at home, and each morning from 6:30-7:30 the girls study virtually with a teacher in Afghanistan. They buy most of their meat from the Sinibad Market in Portland, where the meat is fresh as well as halal. And they buy six loaves of round Afghan bread every two days to accompany the food Paikar cooks. “When I ask the girls if they are happy we are in the U.S., they say, ‘We are very happy because if we were in Afghanistan, the girls can’t go to school after sixth grade,’ ” Paikar said.
For now, the family is focused on working hard to make ends meet. Paikar is an interpreter for MEIRS, the Lewiston school district, and New England Arab American Organization (NEAAO) in Portland. She is also on the board of the Afghan Community Association of Maine. And Babrak is gradually acquiring power tools to expand the services he can offer. Anyone who has power tools they no longer need, or is looking for a skilled handyman, is encouraged to contact Babrak at 207-601-2593.
Dreams for the future include a small two- or three-bedroom house with a garage, a thriving handyman business, permanent immigration status, and visas for family members still in Afghanistan. The parents are delighted at the opportunities open to their daughters in the U.S. “They have a bright future,” they both agreed.