We Fled Afghanistan for America After Insurgents Threatened Our Family & Now We Help Refugee Families Like Us

One family left Afghanistan in 2017 after receiving threats related to their work with the United States Army. Now the family is settling into life in America while advocating for other refugee families. 

Silhouette of a family of four holding hands at sunset by the water

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Amir and Sima Sayyid* were in grade school when the Taliban took over their hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan. The fundamentalist group banned girls from schools and dictated dress codes and curfews, rocking any childhood sense of stability. When the United States overthrew the terrorist regime following the attacks of September 11th, things started to look up. Sima returned to school then met Amir in college while they earned their degrees. They married, began promising careers—she as a human resources coordinator, he as a local contractor for the United States Army—and even started their own family: The two are parents to Mirza*, 10, and Karim*, 8. They began raising their children as proud Afghans, dedicated to helping their country thrive.

But by 2016, things had taken another turn. Insurgents were resuming control of local operations and weren’t happy about Amir's work, which took him throughout Afghanistan to oversee the funds that had been given to the national army and report back to the U.S. government on any misuse. “I started receiving anonymous phone calls saying, you are helping the invaders,” he recalls. “One day, my wife was commuting to her job, and some unknown men grabbed her and said, ‘If your husband doesn’t stop working with the U.S. Army, we will harm your kids.’” The two decided to stick it out, hoping that the abuse would stop. It didn’t.

Amir was traveling home from a job site in 2017 when an SUV blocked his way. As he sat in shock, four men jumped out and surrounded his vehicle. “They were wearing masks, they had AK47s, targeted, pointed at me, yelling at me to get out of the car,” he remembers. The men broke his windshield, pulled him out of the vehicle, and started beating him. All he could think of, he says, was his wife and children. The men let him go with bruises and a warning, but it was the final straw for the young family. Amir and Sima quickly applied for special immigration visas under the Afghan Allies Protection Act (given to Afghans and Iraqis who’ve helped the American government) and moved themselves and their children to the U.S. within the year.

Now living in New York, Amir and Sima are committed to raising their kids with a sense of freedom, holding onto their Afghan culture and language while embracing a brand-new style of leading a family.

As immigrants to the US, we have our own culture, our own religion and language, but now we are living as Americans. We are now part of this community.

“My parenting method is completely changed now,” says Sima. Though she worked full-time in Afghanistan—unusual in their society—she chose to avoid looking for a job for the first few years of the family’s resettlement, so she could help her children adjust to the new culture. “I saw lots of moms, saw how they behaved with their children, and learned from them,” she says. She and her husband attended parenting sessions, consulted with locals, and have gone out of their way to volunteer at their kids’ schools. “I wanted to know about the curriculum here, because I had no idea,” says Sima. “I wasn’t in school in America, so I wanted to learn how the teachers teach,” she says.

The biggest difference, they say, was the way that adults interact with their kids, asking questions about their days and going out of their way to connect. “I saw that most parents, they really want to spend time with their children,” says Sima. Her parents had home-schooled her when the Taliban banned girls from getting an education, but there was always a clear delineation between kids and grown-ups—she wasn’t used to parents treating their children like mini-adults.

“Back in Afghanistan… there were no parent-teacher meetings at school, or regular interaction between children and parents,” explains Amir. “I remember my childhood—it was nothing for us. I feel lucky that my kids are being raised here and receiving that standard.”

That doesn’t mean the transition has been easy for their kids. Mirza was 5 and Karim was 3 when they arrived in New York and struggled in their first months of English-language school. “When Karim came home from his first day of school, he was crying because he couldn’t understand a word,” Amir says. Still, he and his wife pushed their children to adopt their new country’s language and customs, to grow up as Americans. “As immigrants to the U.S., we have our own culture, our own religion and language, but now we are living as Americans. We are now part of this community,” he says. Karim has fallen for superhero movies, while Mirza loves reading and writing notes for her friends and family.

A community of Afghan families in New York often get together to share stories and traditions, working to keep their own culture alive while better understanding the one they’ve found themselves in. “My children come home asking about holidays,” says Amir. “I didn’t know about Halloween until I came here, so I started doing some research about what’s cultural, what’s related to religion.” They’ve since celebrated Thanksgiving with neighbors and joined in local parties while celebrating their Muslim and Afghan holidays with families in the area.

Since arriving in America, Amir has gotten an engineering job in New York City, and he’s eager to build his American career. Sima is interested in restarting her career in human resources, now that she has a better handle on parenting as an American. “As a mom,” she says. “I’m completely changed.” Take, for example, the family’s new love of books. “In our country, children don’t read books outside school—because of the war, we didn't have a public library,” she says. “Now, we go to the library on the weekend and see so many parents that bring children and read books and explain books.” Regular trips to parks, restaurants, and movie theaters help the Sayyids round out their cultural exploration.

Back in Afghanistan… there were no parent-teacher meetings at school, or regular interaction between children and parents. I remember my childhood—it was nothing for us. I feel lucky that my kids are being raised here and receiving that standard.

Now that the Sayyids are starting to get their bearings, they’re looking for ways to repay the community that welcomed them. When they first moved to New York, says Sima, HIAS, an organization that assists refugees, and members of the local Jewish Community Center helped them to resettle, driving the family to doctors’ appointments and enrolling the kids in school. Now, Amir is an ambassador for the Westchester Refugee Initiative, helping other families navigate the process and advocating for the rights and treatment of refugees in America. Sima volunteers her translator services to new Afghan families, helping out with school and medical appointments. “I feel really happy because I remember those moments when I came here and we really needed help,” she says. “I am very happy to help people with whatever they need.”

*Names have been changed for the privacy and safety of the family in America and their relatives still living in Afghanistan.

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