Through the Eyes of a Refugee: Living in America After a Country’s Collapse
On August 26, 2021, Yousof Kohistani, an Afghan and third-year university student working towards a degree in computer science, found himself at the Kabul airport trying to flee Afghanistan with his family. Kabul had recently fallen to the Taliban, and the airport was the only way out. Yousof, alongside his cousin, Waris, were awaiting transport at the Kabul airport when an explosion happened—a suicide bomber had detonated an explosive, killing at least 183 people and injuring more than 100 others, including Yousof, who suffered injuries to his leg and head, including shrapnel in his brain. Waris helped Yousof get to the transport vehicle, and they were then sent to Qatar, then to a hospital in Germany, and lastly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for care in the United States.
After months of recovering, Yousof relocated to Denver with Waris to be with other family members and begin their new lives. They are being sponsored and mentored by Broomfield, Colorado city councilwoman Heidi Henkel, and her husband, Scott Henkel, a retired Army captain who worked with Afghan interpreters during his time in the military. The Henkels are part of the Broomfield Afghan Evacuee Task Force, which has helped 37 refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine to resettle in Colorado.
Below, a conversation with Yousof and Heidi about life as a refugee and adjusting to a new way of living in the United States.
Yousof, tell me a bit about your life prior to coming to America. You were in school, were you also working?
I had just come from India. I was working on my bachelor’s degree in computer science in India. I was in my third year of studies when the COVID-19 pandemic happened, so I had to return to Afghanistan. I had been back in Afghanistan for a year, working at the Ministry of Economy as a computer technician when the situation with the Taliban happened and we had to leave. It all happened so fast, we didn’t know that would happen.
How are you adjusting to your new life in Colorado?
It’s much better than before. I’m learning new stuff and trying to get into society. Everything is much better. It’s more civilized, and the people are really nice.
Are you in school again in Colorado, or working?
I’ve applied for a few jobs in Colorado. I think it’s going to take some time. But I also applied for education and they told me I have to wait a year, so next year I can start.
HEIDI: What I’m finding too is that not all of our American institutions will accept his credits even if they’re out of India. We have another woman who is 21 and was in her third year of medical school in Afghanistan, and our schools definitely will not take those credits because all of their schools have essentially broken down and we can’t get transcripts, plus the education system is not a recognized one here in America. It’s interesting because he was getting his degree in India and we still are having to figure out what transcripts will transfer to which schools because some will probably accept it and some won’t. So, we’re figuring out his educational next steps, because he’s also going to have to work while going back to school, so we’re working on it.
Yousof, do you feel like you’ll ever want to or be able to go back to Afghanistan, or do you think you’ll always want to stay in the United States?
I would prefer to live in America. In my childhood, I used to watch some American cartoons, so I kind of knew American cultures and traditions, and it also helped me learn English better. I would like to stay here, but since Afghanistan is my homeland and I have lots of memories there, I’d like to go back for a vacation or holiday. I’d prefer to educate myself here and grow here. It’s a good place to grow.
Do you feel America is welcoming to you?
Yes. Since that tragic situation happened, Americans have been really nice to us, like family. They did a lot for us, and I feel like I have a responsibility to pay it back and do something better for this nation.
What has been the hardest adjustment for you so far living in the United States?
I haven’t been able to find a job easily. Other things are better here than in Afghanistan, but hopefully I’m going to find a job soon. There are a few jobs that I’m eligible to do, but I want to grow in my own field in IT. I’m going to find one, it’s just going to take some time.
HEIDI: And part of this is that we have a lot of translator jobs. And while he could do that and he would be really good at it, his passion is computer work. He loves coding. And we’re going to find out more about what his gifts are in that world. He could apply for translator jobs, but those are also in person and we have to get him a car, and he doesn’t have a credit history. If we didn’t have the community rallying behind him, he wouldn’t even be able to get that job, much less a job in his own area. But he’s done a really good job of applying to jobs that I send him and he’s really on top of it.
So, what would you say is your favorite thing about your new home in the United States?
My favorite thing is that everyone is busy with their own world. Everyone has their own things going on so people don’t judge. It’s a busy city and everyone’s going about with their own thoughts and lives. It’s a really good place to grow. We have lots of opportunities here.
You were forced to get out fast, how does it feel to be building a new life in a new place, especially since it wasn’t by choice?
Life is challenging from the day we’re born. We have to manage how we live and it’s kind of challenging because I’ve grown up in a different society and now, I’m facing a new one, but people are adjustable, and I’ve kind of educated myself on American society.
Have you found new friends yet? Or do you have any new hobbies?
Back in Virginia, I had a few friends when I was at Walter Reed. Over here, I kind of got busy with other things, like building a good resume. In the work field, I’m going to find friends, and here I have a few friends but we don’t meet daily like we did at Walter Reed.
HEIDI: They moved into a new apartment complex as well and there are other Afghan families there and also a lot of young American adults who are in the low-income bracket. The affordable housing area is going to be a great place for them to start making new friends in the area.
What can people do to welcome refugees into a new country? What advice would you give people for welcoming refugees into a new place?
Instead of looking at someone as a refugee, look at them as a guest who came to their country. In my experience, people are doing that and it’s helpful. Refugees are also humans, and they’re guests over here, so treat them like a human. I haven’t faced this, but I’ve heard from others that some refugees have been bullied and hurt by other people’s comments, and that was also their advice: Refugees are still human beings.
HEIDI: And what I’ve seen too in job applications or job interviews with a few of our refugees, is a lot of employers will not understand their work history. I’ve been in interviews with people and refugees and the person has a college education and the employer basically told them they had to mop floors and work their way up. I think you want to make sure that people say “hey, you are American in our eyes.” A lot of people just think they’re from Afghanistan, and that’s all they’re defined as. When a refugee status happens to people, it’s not their actual definition. You are not defined by the word refugee. The fact that their government collapsed is not on their plate, it’s just something that happened to them. A lot of people think “treat them like family,” and that’s really important.
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