Resident Spotlight: Afghan refugee finds solace through helping fellow immigrants

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Resident Spotlight: Afghan refugee finds solace through helping fellow immigrants
Faheed Ahmad immigrated from Afghanistan to the United States when the Taliban overtook Kabul in August 2021.
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By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

Faheem Ahmad moved to the City of Alexandria several years ago as an Afghan refugee. The process was grueling, extensive and often left him experiencing a sense of unbidden otherness, but it’s a feeling with which he’s familiar because it marked his second stint as a refugee. Ahmad has drawn on those experiences and, with help from Alexandria’s Workforce Development Center, plans to devote the rest of his life to helping other refugees.

Though he was raised in Pakistan, Ahmad was born in Afghanistan in 1997 while his mother, pregnant with him, was visiting family. Several years prior to his birth, Ahmad’s father, mother and siblings had fled Afghanistan to escape that country’s civil war. At that time, rebel factions had besieged Kabul and overthrown communist president Najibullah, thrusting the country into disarray.

Early in his life, Ahmad realized that he was treated differently from his Pakistani peers. This manifested in many ways, such as being called derogatory names like “immigrant” and excluded from activities.

“There were a lot of struggles. When I was growing, I started to feel like I’m a different person than my school classmates and teachers and everyone else,” Ahmad recalled. “I started to feel like I’m treated differently in a negative way.”

A young Ahmad (right) and his brother, Rafi, in Pakistan.

Later, he was denied a rental apartment due to his refugee status and refused appointments and medication at some public hospitals. And although he would live in Pakistan for more than 20 years by the time he left, he was still not permitted to gain citizenship, own property or even open a bank account.

Ahmad graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a specialization in human resource management in May 2019 and unsuccessfully attempted to find employment in Pakistan because of his refugee status. So he eventually returned to Afghanistan in hopes of securing a job, only for the Taliban to later enter Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021 and ultimately collapse Afghanistan’s Western-supported government.

Evacuation

The events of that day come back to Ahmad with pristine clarity. He was en route to apply for a visa in Pakistan, which had recently closed its borders due to the growing conflict in Afghanistan. Suddenly, people nearby were frantically leaving buildings and running out into the middle of the street. They had just been given an evacuation order via Afghan media to immediately go home, as the Taliban had overtaken Kabul.

“It was very chaotic. Everybody was running, people were closing the shops and people were taking their items. Women were running, children were running, there was no public transport. It was total chaos,” Ahmad said.

Two days after the invasion, Ahmad’s brother-in-law, who was a U.S. citizen, received an email from the U.S. embassy instructing him and his immediate family to immediately go to the airport for potential military evacuation.

The evacuation process was tumultuous, and just getting inside the airport proved to be nearly an impossible feat. According to Ahmad, the entrance to the airport was crowded with throngs of people desperately trying to evacuate. The United States, French and British military guarded the entrances, people kicked and shoved past each other aggressively, and gunfire sounded from every direction in an attempt to manage the crowds.

“They were shooting in front just a few feet away from me. It was really scary. I had never heard gunshots as close as that. I had never heard something like that,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad and hundreds of other evacuees were brought from Afghanistan to the U.S. Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Once Ahmad and his family finally got inside the airport, operations were much calmer. Following an 81-hour evacuation process – which Ahmad said involved no sleep, approximately 500 people on his plane sitting shoulder to shoulder and a long stop at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar – he finally stepped foot on U.S. soil.

The taxing process engendered a great deal of reflection on Ahmad’s part. As he started to digest the trauma he experienced, it dawned on him that the recent displacement was not too unlike his early experiences in Pakistan.

“[I realized that] I am becoming a refugee twice in a lifetime, again at a young age,” Ahmad said.

One of the most challenging moments came after landing in the Dulles International Airport, Ahmad said, when immigration officials directed his family and him to wait in the airport for almost 12 hours while processing documents. They did not have any idea when they would be released.

But it also brought a sense of relief, joy and boundless opportunity.

“We were waiting minute by minute. And of course, we were very tired from the last 81 hours, so that was very difficult,” Ahmad said. “… [But] in order to get something, we have to lose something. So, I’m happy I waited [because] I got an entrance to the USA.”

A fresh start

Although Ahmad stayed with his brother in San Francisco, California for the first month, he eventually moved to Alexandria to build a professional career.

Upon moving to the city, Ahmad opened a bank account, received work authorization approval, state identification card and refugee cash assistance. By April 2022, he was an employee at Ross Dress for Less. The Times highlighted this arc in the April 14, 2022 story, “Afghan refugees face job struggles.”

Ahmad earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Peshawar.

Since then, Ahmad has made significant progress. After working at Ross for several months, he landed a job as a security guard for a Washington, D.C. apartment complex where he would patrol the pool and rooftop. He went from making $12 an hour to $18.

He attributes a portion of this success to the fact that he’s well educated and fluent in English, which many refugees are not.

“For me, I didn’t face a lot of struggles because I was familiar with how to use [the] internet, how to search on Facebook, how to use Indeed.com, plus I had relatives here who were guiding me,” Ahmad said.

Aware of his advantage, Ahmad decided he wanted to help other refugees who were in similar situations but did not possess the same skills and resources. He posted on the “I Love Alexandria” Facebook page seeking a job in the city, to which someone pointed him toward the Workforce Development Center.

When a WDC employee asked him what kind of job he was looking for, Ahmad stated that he desired to work in social services, specifically with refugees and immigrants.

“She said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Since I have been a refugee in my life, I have seen the struggles of immigrants, and why people escape from countries, and why people are forced to leave their countries and move to another country,” Ahmad said. “So, I am completely aware of those feelings and those pains and those compromises.”

The employee told him that she was deeply inspired by his ambitions. She also noted that Ahmad’s resume looked unprofessional and so created a new one for him on the spot, promising that once an opportunity arose she would be in touch with him.

After four months, the WDC employee contacted Ahmad with an opening at Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit organization that assists with refugee resettlement. He interviewed, and later accepted an internship with the organization. Just one month into the internship, Ahmad’s supervisor expressed satisfaction with his performance and promoted him to a permanent position as a job developer.

In this current position Ahmad provides employment services to immigrants, particularly Afghans and Ukrainians. He assists nearly 300 clients primarily with job searches, resume building, interview preparation and pre-employment training. He also provides secondary services that are not directly related to employment, such as social, emotional and cultural support. The objective, he said, is to help them eventually achieve self-sufficiency and financial independence.

Faheem Ahmad currently works at Lutheran Social Services as a job developer.

Recently, in a full circle kind of moment, he helped one woman secure a job as a cashier. And his work doesn’t stop there; he plans to next help her find a higher paying job, and then another higher paying job after that. He plans to spend the rest of his career in the social services field.

Hardship and prejudice have touched Ahmad’s life from an early age, and he’s the first to acknowledge that the psychological scars will take time to heal. At the same time, it was in the trenches that he discovered his calling, and through that calling he finally found permanence and belonging.

“I have always been made for the social services,” Ahmad said. “… Sometimes I feel like God is working through my hands. I feel extremely happy. When I come home, I feel very honored, and I take pride that I contributed to the betterment of human beings and made positive changes in their life.”

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