What the Afghan wants to say: A story of resettlement | Guest column

The wind is strong. It carries the colored leaves of fall to our doorsteps — leaves that bear the first creases of winter on the edges. The wind also brings us broken people from lands far away, lands torn by religious fundamentalism and wars.

These are people touched by the icy fingertips of war that cull the life out of its own people. But desires are strange longings that sustain life — the desire for survival, for safety, and the desire to further life.

It is one such desire that led a young Afghan to ride the winds of change. Navid Hamidi, the executive director of Afghan Health Initiative, chose to fly away from the shifting regimes and political uncertainties of Afghanistan to the shores of liberation in 2014. Having worked in different branches of the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven years, Navid applied for an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) in 2012. The visa ensured his passage to the United States in 2014.

It was the onset of winter in Seattle, and the grey desolation of the skies outside the airport were very different from Navid’s conception of Washington. The state had appeared greener and more cheerful in his web searches back in Afghanistan. But here, on his first day, stood a new home that mimicked the grey confusions of his mind. A fresh beginning can be very disconcerting, and Navid’s was no less — from navigating a new culture to the intricacies of daily life.

On his first night, a Vietnamese gentleman from the IRC (International Rescue Committee) picked him up from the airport, and dropped him off near Navid’s brother’s apartment in Kent. His brother had relocated to the U.S. a month before him and had moved into a one-bedroom apartment. Navid was to sleep in his living room for the next three months, while his case was being processed by the resettlement agency. Asylum seekers like Navid get up to 90 days of financial assistance from the government. It is during this period that case workers, representing resettlement agencies, help new arrivals find housing, employment and other forms of assistance.

During the first three months in the U.S., Navid was assigned a case worker who was to help him find employment within the 90-day period. While the intention to find him employment was noble, Navid found this experience harrowing.

In our interview, Navid stated, “the case worker was just giving me options that really scared me… like hey, you want to go to Alaska and work in a fishing boat for six months? Getting me a job was the first priority for him so that they could close my case and move on to the others.” Following the offer to join a fishing boat, Navid found himself being offered a minimum-wage job at a farm in Kent with an hourly wage of $9 to $10. These opportunities distressed him, owing to his disinterest in farming or fishery. He wanted to work in an office or go to college because he believed his familiarity with computers and the English language, during his military-service years in Afghanistan, had prepared him for more than manual labor. However, his case worker had a different concern, as Navid recounted: “He was telling me that it is not for you. You’re an immigrant, you’re here. You need to make sure you can afford living somewhere. How long do you want to stay with your brother, how will you pay for your food?”

Despite the practicality of the case worker’s concerns, Navid wanted to fulfill his purpose of finding a better life in the U.S. by pursuing a college degree.

While speaking to Navid, and later to a DSHS member, about the resettlement process, I realized how this clash of the case worker’s worldview and that of Navid’s presented the classic conundrum between the pragmatism of case numbers and the vague reality of human aspirations.

On the one hand, there are a huge number of cases that resettlement agencies have to attend to within a stipulated time period. On the other hand, we have asylum seekers like Navid who feel pressured into finding jobs that do not resonate with their interests. Resettlement agencies put in laudable efforts into finding housing and employment, among many other services, for new arrivals. However, as Navid noted, it is also crucial to ask if the system of resettling people needs revision in the wake of a new generation of asylum seekers.

In Navid’s words: “The system is built for generations 40 years ago. This generation has dreams, is tech-savvy. Resettlement agencies cannot apply the same principles of the old model, where the focus is mainly to help refugees get a job… this could destroy somebody’s future because if people gave these refugees the option of educational empowerment…like hey…this country gives you not only paychecks, but there’s more, that would be beneficial as it’d open many doors.”

In keeping with his aspirations, Navid decided to refuse the employment opportunities offered by the resettlement system. He wanted to realize his dreams of education, and opted for a trip to Green River College with his case worker. This opened up the doors to a different life for him, as he later went on to study public health at the University of Washington and establish his own non-profit organization.

Today, Navid takes a leaf out of his own life to teach young Afghan arrivals the importance of education. He believes that the youth need role models to inspire them, and their families need to be informed of possible educational pathways for their kids.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.