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Strangers just a few months ago, two Afghan women try to find their way in western Massachusetts

A photo of a person in a blue hat and puffer coat, sitting in profile as seen through the window of a restaurant. The menu fills the lower third of the photo.
Nirvani Williams
Fati sits in the window of a café in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts.

Fati and Malalai didn't know each other before arriving in western Massachusetts. But together, these two Afghan women are figuring out how to navigate life in the U.S. together.

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Fati, 19, is a student from Afghanistan whose ability to speak English got her on a U.S. plane out of the country in August 2021.

"This was a very good point of my life that I knew the language," she said. "I could tell my problem to the soldier, to the American soldier, to please… I am just myself. I'm alone. Let me get in. I am really thankful of that guy, the soldier that led me to get in."

Malalai, 46, is a former administrator at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and mother of six. Her adult children are still in the country.

“Every day that passes, it bothers me,” Malalai said, in Dari. “If I lose my children, what can I do then?”

We’re not using Fati and Malalai’s full names out of their concern for their family.

In November, the two women were placed together in temporary housing in Chicopee. Their lives are connected by chance, but their fears remain the same. They haven’t been able to stop thinking about their family members who are stuck back home.

Malalai’s sons are in hiding. They were in a special militia that targeted and killed Taliban leaders. She worries they’ll be killed.

“My son cannot go to a barbershop,” Malalai said. “He cannot purchase anything for the home. They cannot go anywhere because they are being followed.”

Fati’s family is also in hiding. She thought they were on the plane to the U.S. military base in Qatar. She remembers the chaos at the airport. When she arrived in Qatar, she realized they didn’t make it on. Now, she’s focused on paving her own way in the U.S., hoping her family will be able to come.

“I should be strong, I should be powerful, I should figure out myself,” Fati said. “After that, I can help anyone else, because first you should take care of yourself. And after that, you can help the others. So for supporting my family, I should support first myself.”

New apartment, but lingering frustrations

In December, the resettlement agency Catholic Charities found the two women an apartment in Northampton. It’s a one-year lease covered by the nonprofit to help Fati and Malalai toward independence.

Fati said she’s grateful, but — at this point — she’s also clearly frustrated. The apartment is a one-bedroom, and they share that bedroom. Fati said at times it’s difficult. She and Malalai are a generation apart, have different sleeping schedules and talk on the phone at different times.

"Would you sleep in one room with your mom or your aunt? Is it comfortable for you? I don't want to make problems for them, if they would hear my voice," she said. "But it is really, really good for me to have your own room. It's OK, we both signed for this apartment, but you can imagine."

Malalai uses the only closet. Fati still keeps her clothes in her suitcase.

Adding to the discomfort, Fati doesn’t have a good, warm blanket. She’s been using a sleeping bag she got at a military base.

“During the night and the day [it's] really cold,” Fati said. “We don't have any warm blankets. Do you see? No.”

When Fati asked Catholic Charities for another blanket in December, she said they gave her a thin sheet to cover with because that was all they had. The agency said it’s dependent on donations to furnish homes for the evacuees and is trying to meet all needs.

Fati and Malalai said Catholic Charities volunteers, also known as "circles of care," were able to get them other items.

"Circle of care, they were helping. These things that we have, they did," Fati said. "For example, they brought this chair."

“Helping circle help,” Malalai said.

Catholic Charities is one of several agencies helping to relocate evacuees to western Massachusetts. They have four full-time staff members to 80 evacuees, and count on 450 volunteers to help connect the evacuees to grocery stores in their area, transportation and health care.

'I have a good feeling because I made it'

On a brisk Saturday in January, Fati sat near the window of a café. She said they’d received more help from their circle of care.

"They brought some home stuffs and like cooking pots. These things for me and Malalai, too," Fati said. "It was, like, basic items that we need to start our own life."

Fati acknowledged that she and Malalai aren’t going to get everything they need right away.

"We start new living in an apartment, and it's not easy to get used [to], and everything should be complete in a short time," she said. "By the days, by the week, by the month, it's going to be OK."

An opportunity did open for Fati. One of the volunteers told her about a job at a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Northampton.

"It was at 10 p.m. at night and my phone rang," Fati said, recounting her call with the manager. "He said, 'Are you interested to start working here?' I said, 'Yeah, of course.' Back home, I said to Malalai, 'I got the job,' and she said, 'Wow, it was so fast.'"

Fati has been working as a cashier and waitress for about a month.

"You meet every day, new person or maybe a regular customer. I'm working here and I'm very happy with this. I have a job [and] money is coming," she said. "Maybe this is not an ideal job, but it's still a job, because it is better than to be at home and thinking all day and counting the problems."

Fati has plans. Her proficient English skills have helped her figure out her next steps. She wants to get a scholarship to go to college.

Malalai is also trying to find a job. Most openings she’s found online are in Hadley or Amherst. She said the problem is transportation. She can’t drive and the available jobs she found were not on the bus route, so she's waiting for a job that’s closer.

Because of her lack of English, the transition into American life has been harder.

“I only attend the English class in the morning,” Malalai said, in Dari. She said she spends the rest of her day at home.

“I have a good feeling because I made it, I am safe,” she said. “However, my children left behind have challenges. I am worried for them.”

Fati admires the perseverance of her roommate.

"She is really a strong woman," Fati said. "This is very hard, and it needs a very strong person to go ahead and not give up."

This story was shared via the New England News Collaborative.

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