A Despairing Afghan Family Plants Roots in Baltimore: “Here there is opportunity for everyone.”
By Christy Macy
Three years ago, Hamida Ebadi and her family fled their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, increasingly terrified by the violence and insecurity being stoked by Taliban insurgents. “One day there was a suicide attack around my children’s school,” she explains. It was time to go. Today, Hamida is walking through the wide glass doors of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, excited but confident on her first day as a paid apprenticeship trainee. When she completes her on-the-job training, Hamida will be guaranteed a supervisory job at the hospital. “I was so happy to get the call that both me and my husband had been accepted into the program,” she said. “This will change everything.”
Hamida, now 51, has courageously embraced change throughout her life, but doing so has demanded greater sacrifice and more determination than she had ever thought possible.
When Hamida and her siblings were very young, their mother decided to leave their home in rural Afghanistan and move to Kabul to further their education. “While she didn’t have any formal schooling of her own, my mother was determined that her children would be highly educated,” says Hamida. Her mother surely succeeded. Hamida’s two older sisters and her brother became doctors. So did Hamida. During her last year of medical school at Kabul University, Hamida was shocked to see how badly women patients were treated at the hospital and dismayed at the lack of equipment and supplies. Her dream back then was to be in a leadership position to improve those conditions and have a real impact on the lives of women and children in her country. And in fact, Hamida would ultimately become Afghanistan’s Director of Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights – where she managed the country’s maternal and child health programs.
After medical school, Hamida married Atiqullah Ebadi, an orthopedic surgeon who would later became the administrator of one of Kabul’s largest hospitals. Not surprisingly, both parents remained committed to give their children the best possible education. Yet even as their family grew and their careers advanced, the Taliban increasingly threatened their way of life. “We feared our children were no longer safe,” Hamida says, “and we decided to pull up roots and move to Pakistan.” They fled just in time. “After I left Kabul,” Hamida recalls, “the Taliban beat the staff at our NGO and threw them in jail.”
Life settled down in Pakistan, with Hamida working with Save the Children and later helping to coordinate maternal and children health clinics. But gradually the situation began to deteriorate again. “The Taliban did not like educated women,” Hamida explains. “They also wanted to crush those who worked in American-supported NGOs. One night,” she recalls, “we returned to our house and it had been completely robbed, the rugs, the money, everything.” A few weeks later her clinic was burned down. Desperately hoping for more stability and a better life for their children, the family returned to Afghanistan and started over once again.
Determined to strengthen her policy and leadership skills, Hamida applied for and was accepted into the U.S. State Department’s Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program. She traveled alone to Baltimore, where she researched maternal health policies at Hopkin’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. During that year, her host family in Baltimore, the Gauvey-Kerns, provided support and friendship.
After returning to her family in Kabul, Hamida decided to go back to her job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and continue her work to improve the conditions of Afghan women and children. Still determined to ensure their children received a better education, Hamida and her husband enrolled their youngest daughter and son at the International School of Kabul (ISK). But again, the Taliban made life very difficult – and increasingly dangerous – for her family, in part because Hamida had studied in the United States. The situation became intolerable, and in 2014, the Ebadi family finally decided to leave their country to come to the United States.
“When we first moved to Baltimore as a family, it felt too hard,” admits Hamida. “We were sad leaving everything; we were homesick; and we were starting from the bottom.” Yet as difficult as life was, the family benefitted from critical support from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the friendship of others, including the Gauvey-Kerns. “It was a major culture shock for the family, who had arrived from Kabul with only a few suitcases,” recalls Susan Gauvey. “We became their cultural interpreters and then their friends. So many Baltimoreans reached out to them.”
Susan helped enroll Hamida’s two younger children in Roland Park Elementary and Middle schools, and the IRC provided the family with much needed support and services. “Once we settled in an apartment, we found our neighbors to be friendly and helpful,” says Hamida. “A neighbor’s son befriended our son. Baltimore was a welcoming place for us.”
Finding work, however, was a challenge, so Hamida decided to attend the community and medical interpretation training offered by the IRC and Liberty Language Services. Her first job was working at Johns Hopkins hospital to interpret English, Dari, Pushtu, and Urdu for health providers and their clients. “I had mixed feelings,” she admits. “I had left a high position in my country’s government, and I was feeling sad and depressed.” On the other hand, she had a job and was contributing to her family’s income. “Later, we realized that Baltimore has so many opportunities. You just have to search very actively,” she says. “If you try hard and make connections, you will get to where you want to be.”
Susan Gauvey underscores the resilience it takes for refugees and immigrants, even highly educated ones, to keep moving forward. “Hamida and Atiqullah have such grace, and grit and humility, and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure their children – the next generation -- grow up to be independent-minded and well educated human beings,” Susan says. “They contribute so much to this community.”
Eventually, Hamida was hired as the Executive Director for Empowerment Health, a volunteer-based NGO in Baltimore. The real turning point, however, came this summer, when both Hamida and Atiqullah were accepted into the Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare apprenticeship program. An “earn and learn” initiative of IRC, Hopkins Medicine, CCBC, the Mayor’s office, and Maryland’s Department of Labor, the program offers participants paid on-the-job training with related technical instruction. Upon completion, Hamida is guaranteed a supervisor job at Hopkins Hospital. The program opens the doors for professional advancement – and steady income -- for both her and her husband.
The Ebadi family will soon celebrate another milestone – buying their first home – thanks to IRC’s home buying initiative, funded by the Abell Foundation and in part by the PNC Bank. Applicants must adhere to rigorous guidelines. “It was all so new – learning how to use a credit card, set up and contribute to a savings account, understanding interest rates,” Hamida laughs. “In Afghanistan, buying a house was much more simple, it’s just an agreement between two people.” She says IRC’s homeownership workshops have been “a great help” in navigating the system.
Hamida does not minimize her struggles to establish a new life in Baltimore. “It takes time to become mentally and physically fit to be successful here and to get used to a new culture. If you ask for help, people in Baltimore will give it to you, but you have to be patient,” Hamida says. “I believe that in this country there is such a great opportunity for everyone, including families like ours, to advance their education and expand their skills.” Then, she continues, they are more prepared to help improve lives here or in their own country. Hamida says that it may not be possible for her to return, “but it is my great hope in life.”
Stories like Hamida’s are an inspiration to us all. Her journey from Kabul to Maryland and what she went through to provide the best for her family not only shows us how determined she is, but that life is full of opportunities and generous supporters like you, who contribute to others’ successes as they walk toward safety, and come closer to owning a piece of the American dream. Thank you for keeping your faith in our mission – From Harm to Home.
Check out Hamida’s interview on WYPR with Sheilah Kast at the following link:
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