Ritiek, former refugee from Afghanistan, leaning against a tree at a park in Tucson, Arizona.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

New home

What may have come as a shock to everyone around the world, when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the fall of 2021, felt like Déjà vu for Afghans who experienced the restrictive rule of their regime over two decades ago. An estimated one million Afghans fled to their neighboring country, Pakistan, between the years 1995 and 1999 (via. PBS NewsHour). 

Ritiek (Reh - teek), her mom, and her younger sister were one of the many families forced to flee their home country. After living in Pakistan for four years, they were welcomed in Tucson, Arizona in the summer of 1999.  With a bouquet of flowers in hand, they were greeted at the airport by Lutheran Social Ministry’s Director of Refugee Services. “That time, I was 24 years old when I came to the U.S.,” Ritiek recalled. She and her family were the first Afghan refugees to be resettled in Tucson, Arizona. 

Although far away from home, Ritiek never felt homesick. “[The] one thing that I loved about Tucson is there were a lot of similarities to my hometown. The mountains around Tucson reminded me of Afghanistan,” she shared. Her knowledge of the English language gave her an advantage and helped her navigate building a new life in Tucson.  “I started learning English from fifth grade all the way until I was done with high school,” Ritiek said.  

Guiding the way 

Eager to learn about the culture in the U.S., Ritiek was always prepared with questions. The Director of Refugee Services took her under his wing and would help guide her, unknowingly. She, in part, credits him for how well she adjusted to life in the U.S. “Where I am now, is because of him. He would spend time with me. He would take me to these organization community events where he would give speeches,” she shared. The more people she met, the more comfortable she felt. “It was therapeutic for me too – I had such a wonderful time knowing different people and getting comfortable within the community… He did not know at that time that he was helping me with my stress,” Ritiek added. 

Being the oldest child, Ritiek felt the pressure to be able to provide for herself and her family and was equally determined to do so. Yet, there were a couple challenges that she faced along the way.  “Most of the challenges that I had was my work…[at] that time, for my first job, I was getting paid five dollars per hour, and it was night shifts, not full-time,” she shared. She worked tirelessly while hoping to secure a full-time job as she worried that she would not be able to pay rent. Lutheran Social Services was a huge support to her and her family during this time.  

Building Connections 

As more Afghans began to arrive in Tucson, there was a need for more assistance with interpretation and relationship building. Ritiek was brought on full-time as a translator and later, a volunteer coordinator to help as she was familiar with the culture and could help Afghan families better adjust to their new environment. “That’s how the agency needed me to translate for them and to help them out – to [help them] learn the culture. Since then, I have been involved with the community,” she said. 

Her work with one resettlement agency led her to learn about another agency, The International Rescue Committee in Tucson, where she began working as an on-call interpreter and then as an Assistant Case Manager. “People were very much interested in learning about refugees and understanding the resettlement agencies… [they] always had gatherings and meetings and that’s how I found out about [the] IRC,” she shared.  

While she was working, Ritiek was also enrolled in a certification program at Pima County Community College with the hope to become a dental hygienist. She was unable to complete the program, as she was expecting her first child and decided it would be best to take a step back to focus on her health. After giving birth to her daughter, she left the IRC but remained involved as much as she could. After her time with the IRC, Ritiek began working for the Department of Economic Security (DES) where she was responsible for processing refugee cases in the state of Arizona.  

Five years later, Ritiek became a homeowner with two young children, and wanted to dedicate more time with her kids and was looking for a role that would provide her with more flexibility in her schedule. “I was looking for something where I could be with my kids and involved with my work as well. I saw real estate had that kind of opportunity where I could manage my own time,” she expressed. She received her real estate license and has been a realtor for almost 11 years. Ritiek was even named one of the top real estate agents in Tucson.  

Helping Hands 

In this role, Ritiek has helped over 100 refugee families find and purchase their first home in the U.S. “This job is rewarding, because I work with a lot of refugee communities here who dream of having their own home. I am fortunate to work with them, find them their first home, and make the process easier,” she shared. 

With the announcement from President Biden of the withdrawal of the U.S forces and with the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan in 2021, Ritiek was devastated. “It just affected me really badly and brought a lot of bad memories to me,” she expressed. She and her best friend had been organizing community events for the Afghan community to remain connected to their roots for years. This time was different.  

Ritiek called her friend, who was working at the IRC in Tucson and asked, “what’s going to happen here?”  

She said, “we’re going to have a big number of Afghans coming.” 

Without hesitation, Ritiek asked, “what can we do to help?” 

They would need to officially register as a non-profit to help and garner more support from the Tucson community. After discussing with their friends and trusted community members, they decided to move forward with registering their non-profit, the Tucson Afghan Community (TAC). In partnership with the IRC and a few other local resettlement agencies, Ritiek shared, “We were able to start helping the first group of Afghans who came to Tucson with their food, airport pickups, and translations.” Their organization continued to grow over time as Afghans who were initially helped by them wanted to lend a helping hand to new arrivals, creating a domino effect.  

Our work, at the IRC, would not be possible without the support of community organizations like the Tucson Afghan Community and supporters like you who share our values and continue to make #RefugeesWelcome every day. “The majority of the people who come here are eager to work, they want to make a life, they want to be safe because of what they have gone through in their home country – Refugees are like everybody else, but they are vulnerable people who have lost everything,” Ritiek expressed.  

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