Saturday, September 13, 2003

Afghans revel in freedom

Refugees resettle in Cincinnati

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Kulsoom Sherzad (center), a refugee from Afghanistan, gathers with six of her children in their Winton Terrace apartment. In front (from left) are Zahra and Freshta. In back (from left) are Nargis, Nazneen, Qasim and Mohammad.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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WINTON HILLS - Amid the smell of traditional Afghan flat bread, Freshta Daad Ali sat on paisley floor pillows in the living room of her apartment pretending to be a television news anchor.

"Hi. This is Freshta," the 16-year-old said, trying to disguise her thick Pashto accent. "Thanks for joining us for the headlines."

Freshta hopes to be a journalist someday. It's something she never imagined five years ago in Afghanistan, where the Taliban forbade women to attend school.

Freshta, her mother, Kulsoom Sherzad, and five of Freshta's eight siblings arrived in Cincinnati 12 days after Sept. 11, 2001. One of Freshta's brothers made his way here later. But her father and two other brothers have not been accepted for resettlement in the United States, although they have been granted refugee status by the United Nations.

Still, the family members here thank God every day they are in America.

That thanks comes despite countless challenges, including thousands of dollars they owe for their flights to an international group that works with the United Nations for migration, a language barrier that makes paying bills difficult and the lack of common household items such as a dictionary and microwave.

[IMAGE] Teacher Pat Friedmann works with Afghan refugee Freshta Daad Ali, 16, in the English-as-a-Second-Language class at Withrow International High School.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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The family lives in a cramped apartment in Winton Terrace, a low-income housing complex. They scrape by on a $132 monthly government subsidy and Sherzad's part-time wages from the Westin Hotel.

Unlike in Kabul, Afghanistan, the women now wear open-toed sandals and jeans in public. They no longer fear beatings by the Taliban if they expose skin at their wrists or ankles.

The four girls, who never attended school before arriving in Cincinnati, now aspire to be artists, doctors and teachers.

"We left all of our things," said Freshta, the second-oldest daughter. "We opened up our minds to what we had to do."

What they had to do was flee brutality in two nations - first Afghanistan, then Pakistan.

Before coming to the United States, the family lived in Pakistan for three years after fleeing war-torn Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, Sherzad said the Taliban once beat her legs with cords and belts because she walked to a grocery store without fully covering her face. Her brother-in-law was killed when a missile tore through the family's home.

Sherzad's husband went into hiding, fearful that his family would be targeted. He is a Shi'a Muslim and of Hazara background, a race persecuted by the Taliban.

"They were told he was dead," said Natalie Fair-Albright, a former refugee resettlement coordinator with Catholic Social Services of Southwestern Ohio.

In 1998, the family fled to Pakistan, where they said corrupt members of the police harassed Afghan families for money and jailed those who didn't comply. Sherzad applied to the United Nations for refugee status, which entitles people to humanitarian assistance. Refugees are people who flee their country and are unable or unwilling to return for fear of persecution or violence against them.

In late 2000, some pro-Taliban Pakistanis rebelled against Afghans marching against the Taliban. They threw stones at the Afghans, broke windows in their homes and fought with them in the streets, Sherzad said. Shortly after that, the family applied for resettlement to another country.

"We had a horrible life in Pakistan," said Nargis, 14, the most outspoken of the daughters. "We wanted a safe place."

In mid-2001, Sherzad learned their destination: The United States.

Three of her sons, one of whom is married, were unable to leave Pakistan. But Sherzad and her six other children received word they would leave for the United States Sept. 20.

"We had dreams to go to school, to college and do something," said Zahra, 17, the oldest daughter.

New life begins

When the family arrived at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport at 11:15 p.m. Sept. 23, there was no one from the relief agency to meet them. That's because the family encountered a two-day delay en route.

They spoke no English, had no food and little money. Sherzad broke down and cried.

"They were scared to death when they came," Fair-Albright said. "They had been told, 'Don't go. The Americans will kill you.' "

But in the first of many gestures of goodwill, a security officer at the airport offered to take them to a hotel. Mindful of the Pakistani police, they refused.

They did, however, accept the man's offer of crackers with peanut butter, Pepsi and chocolate, and waited that night in the airport for a representative from Catholic Social Services.

Sherzad and her children then braced for their lives in America at a time when Muslims were being rounded up across the nation, including Northern Kentucky, as officials tried to uncover the source of the terrorist plot.

They were housed for 43 days in an extended-stay hotel, where the manager taught them how to use washers and dryers for the first time, explained how to use the Metro bus system, gave directions to the grocery store and offered his home and cell phone numbers if they needed assistance.

The family then moved to Winton Terrace, a housing complex of 600-plus apartments that can be dangerous at times. Last summer, a man was killed and six others injured in a shootout. In another incident, police were shot at while writing a ticket in their cruiser.

Another Afghan family, the subject of frequent taunts, moved after firecrackers were thrown through a window in their home.

But Sherzad and her children grew comfortable early on.

A neighbor, who liked the smell of Afghan food, brought them a television before they had one of their own.

Representatives from a church group took them on a shopping spree to Wal-Mart for school supplies and clothes.

"They said choose whatever you want," Zahra said. "I could not believe it."

She chose a watch, shoes and blue jeans.

"At first, I thought it was too much. Then they said I had to do more."

Initially, Sherzad didn't want the girls to attend school because she feared for their safety, Fair-Albright said. Later, she learned she had no choice.

"Freshta was jumping up and down, saying, 'Me school, me school.' "

American life is an adjustment

Withrow International High School was a shock for the devout Muslims. They had never seen students embrace in the hallways, boys sport low-hanging pants and girls in revealing shirts. Freshta cried at lunch on her first day.

The children were placed in English-as-a-Second-Language programs.

Zahra took comfort in the students of different nationalities, even though she could not understand them.

"I saw people from different countries and heard they were speaking different languages and I said 'I am so happy.' "

In every class her first day, Zahra said students walked up, saying "Welcome!" and shook her hand.

Teachers said the children blossomed and made many friends, once they began to pick up English. They eat lunch with classmates from El Salvador, Mexico and Afghanistan.

They are adapting to U.S. culture, listening to 50 Cent and Eminem and munching on Klondike ice cream sandwiches.

Last year, Mohammad, 19, was a goalkeeper on the soccer team.

A year ago, Nazneen, 12, performed in a fashion show at school wearing Indian dress. Five years ago, the girls were forced to wear clothes that fully covered them.

Now they want to give back to the city that adopted them. For a Thanksgiving celebration at Withrow, the children brought bottles of oil, cans of salt and kidney beans and sacks of sugar for the food bank, teacher Pat Friedmann said.

"They said to me, 'My mom said so many Americans have helped us and now we must help them.' "

U.S. life hard but better

Still, prejudice has not escaped them.

A classmate accused Zahra of being sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. A security guard then questioned her, which stunned and hurt her.

Zahra said the principal apologized for the student and said, "Some students don't know you."

On occasion, students ask why the girls wear scarves around their head.

"You have to show you are Muslim," Freshta said. "It's our religion. They told us America is a free land. You have rights and you can do anything."

After two years, they are growing more confident and will even defend themselves because they feel they are free.

When a woman on the street near their home criticized Freshta for wearing her scarf because it was too hot, Freshta fired back, "Maybe for you, but not for me."

The few taunts, they say, can't compare to the terror of their past.

"Life is good," Zahra said. "In Afghanistan, women cannot work outside the home. Here, you can work outside the home and no one bothers you. And in Pakistan, they would laugh at women because they never saw them working outside the home."

Sherzad says she is thankful she can send money back home to her ailing mother.

"And you can have your own money," Nazneen said.

"And the police never hit you," Zahra added.

The children miss their friends and long for their father and the two brothers who remain in Pakistan. They miss Shi'a customs, religious holidays and the cool weather that blew in from the mountains near Kabul.

They miss their big house with its indoor garden and back yard with apple and cherry trees.

Still, they prefer America.

"Sometime I would like to go visit Afghanistan, but I don't like to go forever," Zahra said. "I would like to live here forever because life is better here."

If you would like to donate money to Greater Cincinnati refugees or immigrant families, or time (such as by helping them learn English or taking them out to experience Greater Cincinnati), contact Natalie Fair-Albright of the International Center of Greater Cincinnati 307-9914, or e-mail


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