By Lucy Patterson Grindon, International Rescue Committee
Last week, as Mohammad Barikzai spoke about his service with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and his family’s journey to this country, Fourth of July fireworks interrupted him every few seconds.
Mohammad, his wife Marina and their four young children have been living in the Los Angeles since January 2017. They gained admission to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which allows Afghans and Iraqis who are in danger because they have worked with the U.S. government to come to this country.
Mohammad worked with U.S. forces and NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan for ten years, between 2004 and 2014. For the last seven of those years, he worked directly with U.S. forces at an air base. “I was the one who managed a group of four or five, and after that I was promoted to watch manager, so I was the one who would control air traffic and approve takeoff and landing. I worked with the U.S. air force, the navy, the marines, the army, the special forces. I worked with all of them,” Mohammad said.
Because of the threat of violence from the Taliban in Afghanistan, working with the U.S. was dangerous, but Mohammad and other Afghans like him were willing to risk their safety to try to protect their home. “We just wanted them [the coalition and U.S. forces] to bring peace to my country and the entire world,” Mohammad explained. “There are thousands of people just like me who put their lives at risk to help the coalition forces to achieve the goal of peace everywhere.”
Eventually, the Taliban started hunting Mohammad. “At one o’clock at night, I got a call from my mom saying, ‘They are looking for you.’ They came to my house asking, ‘Is there anyone here who has been working with the US army forces?’” Mohammad said. “Fortunately, I was not at home, I was on duty on the base that night.”
After that night, Mohammad noticed that he was being watched. “Some people started to follow me around the area where I entered the base and also around the area where I got on the bus. So I started to change my shifts, I would change the way I went to work. I even tried to change my clothes, some days I tried different suits, some days glasses, to protect myself from the danger on the street,” Mohammad said.
In December of 2014, Mohammad’s family applied to come to the U.S. through the SIV program so they could be safe from the Taliban. They visited the American embassy in Kabul for an interview, and Mohammad provided all the necessary documentation of his work with the U.S. military. Still, they had to wait two years for the U.S. government to conduct a background check and process their application. They finally received their visas at the beginning of 2017.
When Mohammad’s family arrived in the U.S., they struggled to find housing. The IRC in Los Angeles helped them move past that hurdle. “The entire team from the IRC helped me. They helped me find housing, and they provided everything for our new house. They helped me with starting my new life,” Mohammad said.
Because of Mohammad’s experience working with the U.S. military, Mohammad had a firm grasp of the English language and a good understanding of American culture when he got here, but his wife Marina and their children had not previously been exposed to American customs.
Immigrants with SIVs from Afghanistan and Iraq often need extra help adjusting to life in the U.S., especially if they live in an area without a substantial Afghan or Iraqi popula-tion. Alex Ray, Mohammad’s family’s caseworker, helped them acclimate to American society. “They [immigrants with SIVs] definitely come with their own difficulties and needs, especially since there isn’t a large population of Afghan SIVs here,” Alex said. “They don’t have as much of a support system.”
“It was kind of hard for my family to adjust to living here at first. I worked with Americans for seven years, so I know the accent, the culture, how you pronounce things, but for my family it was harder,” Mohammad said. “Alex helped me by explaining the culture to me and my family, explaining the rules and the laws.”
Mohammad’s first job in Los Angeles was at LAX, but now he works as a clerk for LA County’s In-Home Supportive Services. In his work in the U.S., he still wants to promote peace and tolerance. During the month of Ramadan, he taught a Christian coworker about Islam after the coworker asked why he was fasting. “We shouldn’t judge people by their religion or where they’re from. Our first identity is human. We all have a re-sponsibility to take care of each other and look out for each other,” Mohammad said.
Now that Mohammad is working closer to home and making a steady income, his family is doing very well. “Now, my family has no problems,” Mohammad said. He and Marina have a daughter, eleven, and three sons, eight, three and one. The children are picking up English at school while their mom takes ESL classes.
Eleven-year-old Muaska loves school. Her dad has to translate my questions for her, but then she says clearly and cheerfully, “I like studying. I love to do art, like painting, drawing, those things.”
According to Mohammad, his kids have already found some great friends. “They’re playing a lot. They’re not being shy. They like it here,” he said.