Making a home away from war

A family from Afghanistan resettles in Connecticut.

by Yehyun Kim
December 25, 2022

About this story: Yehyun Kim photographed and interviewed the Masoud family over the course of nine months in an effort to document the experience of Afghan refugees resettling in the United States. At the request of the family, the CT Mirror is not publishing the adults’ first names, or showing their faces, to protect their loved ones still in Afghanistan.

1. Leaving with one bag

It was a warm August evening in 2021 when Mr. Masoud heard gunfire that concerned him. Ever since the Taliban had taken control of the Afghan government a few weeks earlier, the Masoud family had grown used to hearing the sound of gunshots in their city. 

But this time, the sound seemed much closer to their home in Kabul, the capital and largest city of Afghanistan. Because he once worked for the Afghan government and because his father had served on a special team that collaborated with the U.S. Army, Mr. Masoud feared the shots were a sign his family could be at risk of attack.  

It only took a few days for the family to assemble one bag of belongings and flee the country.

“No one wants to leave their own country, their own house, their own family,” Mr. Masoud said. “I left my mother, my brothers, my house, my property, my life, each and every thing. The only thing was to save my life and my kids’ life.”

Of the approximately 82,000 Afghan refugees who fled to the United States since 2021, about 700 currently live in Connecticut, according to a Department of Social Services spokesperson.

2. Accepting help was hard

Ms. Masoud and her daughter head out of the house with a volunteer who helps the family with religious matters. They celebrated the end of Ramadan with other Muslim families. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

The family had never visited America, but having interacted with American officials at work, Mr. Masoud said he largely knew what to expect when arriving here. What felt the most unfamiliar was to receive help from others. Volunteers from Start Fresh, a refugee resettlement agency based in New London, found the family a house and furnished it with everything they would need before they arrived in October 2021. After the Masouds arrived, volunteers showed up every day to give the family rides to appointments or trips to the grocery store, where the family purchased groceries with SNAP food stamps from the federal government.

Back in Afghanistan, Mr. Masoud lived in a spacious house with seven bedrooms and five bathrooms. Every Friday, which is observed as a sacred day of worship in Afghanistan, more than a dozen friends gather with the Masouds to eat, play cricket and dance into the night. They took turns hosting the parties, and when it was the Masouds’ turn, the party would take place in their back yard, full of flowers and fruit trees. There was even a separate guest house for those who wanted to spend the night. 

“But suddenly, we came over here and we had like just $300,” Mr. Masoud said. Receiving someone’s help on a daily basis was an adjustment. “It was really hard. Still, we need help to settle.”

The family used a large portion of their SNAP food stamps to purchase groceries to host a gathering with their new friends. At their new home, they continue their cultural practice of taking turns hosting and socializing at home. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Mr. Masoud drives to take a driver’s license test. He had a learner’s permit, but he couldn’t take the test that day because he needed his original Afghanistan driver license. He asked friends back home to mail it to him so he could become independent as soon as possible. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

3. Volunteers help foster independence

Ms. Masoud waits with her daughter for her son to be dropped off after school. Ms. Masoud also goes to school with her daughter to learn English. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

In their first months in Connecticut, the family had to learn how to do everything — from purchasing groceries at self-checkout to visiting doctors — with steady help from Start Fresh volunteers.

When his family got sick or needed vaccinations, a small group of retired medical volunteers would schedule appointments and accompany them to the clinics. During those visits Mr. Masoud would pay close attention so he could later remember what the volunteers said to staff and what documents they showed to comply with insurance requirements. “They’re showing first, so slowly, slowly, when I get my car, I can handle this alone,” Mr. Masoud said.

Mr. Masoud waits at the dentist, which he pays for with his HUSKY health insurance. Connecticut offers health insurance to people under certain annual income limits. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Wais, 8, poses before his younger sister Zala’s third birthday. It was her first birthday celebration in the United States. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Independence actually comes pretty quickly, said Chris George, executive director at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS).

“Usually, by the end of six months, people have jobs, and they’re able to cover most of their expenses with some help from cash assistance and food stamps,” George said. “The objectives of refugee resettlement are to help somebody become self-sufficient and integrated into the community as soon as possible.” 

Getting a job and becoming self-sufficient was also the top priority for Mr. Masoud. “Without getting a job, it means we are not settled here. So nowadays, I’m thinking about my job, where to get the job, how it will be and how I will get it,” Mr. Masoud said last January. 

Independence also matters for his identity as a husband and father. “In Afghanistan, we have a proverb, saying if a person is jobless, the person is with no wife,” Mr. Masoud said.

As soon as his wife, son and daughter started to learn English and were adjusting to their new country, he turned on the computer to search for jobs.

4. Giving up for the essentials

Mr. Masoud walks home with his son after school. The son started speaking English a few months after arriving in the U.S. and has made new friends at school. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

After applying for more than 20 positions, Mr. Masoud started a part-time job as a marketing manager in March. He has more than 10 years of experience in administrative work, including Human Resources, but not having a vehicle limited his employment options. But he said he didn’t mind lowering his expectations and applying at smaller companies as long as he had a plan to improve himself and slowly move upward.

“Now, currently, I’m out of home. It’s good,” he said.

Ms. Masoud makes a dress for her daughter. She learned sewing at a young age and is used to sewing for others. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Mr. Masoud isn’t the only person in his family who has had to incorporate traditional values into a new life in America. His eight-year-old son, Wais, who is Muslim like the rest of the family, skips lunch at school unless his school cafeteria is serving bread or vegetables. The family eats only halal certified meat that has been slaughtered in a specific manner; meat served in school isn’t usually halal certified. Only after school ends at around 4 p.m. does Wais eat a late halal lunch, sitting around a tablecloth on the floor with his family.

During Ramadan, the Masouds prayed five times a day as instructed in their religion. On the cabinet, they attached a paper listing the times to pray and start fasting during the Ramadan month. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Ms. Masoud’s new dress. Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services hosts a sewing club where refugee women sew in a group and socialize. “We try to find an activity that they are good at, that’s familiar to them to give them a sense of pride, competence and self esteem, and build up their confidence,” said Chris George, executive director at IRIS. “Sewing will do that.” Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Ms. Masoud has always been a bit of a clotheshorse, with an especial fondness for unique outfits and scarves. Whenever her husband traveled for business and asked her what souvenir he should bring back, she always said clothes. “I like to have nice, new, unique dresses,” Noorzia said in Pashto. “I’m feeling really relaxed when I’m in nice clothes.”

When she found out they were leaving Afghanistan last August, she painstakingly chose and packed 20 outfits that she made herself. But the airport was full of families like hers trying to flee the country and they couldn’t move around with two bags. She had to leave the second bag behind if she wanted her family to make it out of the country, so she did.

When she arrived in Connecticut, the only clothes she had were the ones she was wearing. The backpack that her family brought from Afghanistan was going through a security check and it took months for them to get it back.

Buying new clothes has been difficult in Connecticut, Ms. Masoud said. They are either too expensive or too revealing for her culture. Instead, she has made full use of her sewing skill to make dresses for herself and her daughter with a sewing machine that volunteers donated and fabric that she purchased with a $400 gift card that a school group raised. Watching her daughter grin while wearing a new green Afghan Kochi dress that Ms. Masoud made for Eid, the festival to celebrate the end of Ramadan, her face wore the same wide smile.

5. Two flags, one home

The Masoud couple talks to a family member in Afghanistan on a video call. Mr. Masoud said he misses his friends and family the most when talking on the phone. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

A year after arriving in Connecticut, the Masoud family is finally feeling a bit more settled.

After driving a donated 2001 Subaru for a few months, Mr. Masoud recently bought a 2013 Toyota Corolla that he feels safe driving his family around in. The family stays connected to their culture by spending time on weekends with 30 other families from Afghanistan who have settled nearby. 

Mr. Masoud is already thinking of ways to help other refugees, including committing several hours a week to translating and giving rides like others did for his family. 

“In a very hard time, we are receiving lots of help and support,” he said. “If I can return back to the people that are around me, if they need my help, I will do that.” 

On Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Masoud family visited another Muslim family in Old Lyme who they met at a military base in Virginia. They cooked together, shared food and relaxed. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

He also enrolled in a one-year Human Resources certificate course this September at Central Connecticut State University. “If I have good energy, good knowledge of things that I’m doing, it will help this country and these people more,” he said.

He dreams of becoming an entrepreneur and starting his own business, continuing his education and earning his master’s and Ph.D. degrees. “I had dreams [in Afghanistan]. It just switched to another country,” he said.

A study from the National Immigration Forum shows that refugees make up a vital part of the U.S. labor market by filling needed jobs; this group also has a higher employment rate than the U.S.-born population. The employment rate of working-age refugee men was 67% from 2009 to 2011, compared to 60% for native-born men during the same period. Refugee women were as likely to be hired as American-born women. 

Mr. Masoud visited a New London barbershop with his son. He said accompanying volunteers on different appointments in the first few months helped him learn “how to deal with them, how to talk with them, how to manage them and how to inform them.” Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Although his friends and family in Afghanistan are always in his thoughts, Mr. Masoud said he wants to stay in the United States even if the Taliban leaves the country. He said he loves the high-quality education and a culture that values humanism, privacy and people being on time.

Whether the Masouds and other refugee families can remain in this country if they choose is up in the air. The majority of Afghans, including the Masouds, entered the country with a short-term humanitarian parole status that typically lasts for two years. They have to apply for asylum to retain permanent status.

“To be quite blunt, we do not, as a state or as a country, have the legal capacity with attorneys, with our courts, or USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), we don’t have the capacity to process almost 80,000 folks who have come from Afghanistan, to process that number of asylum applications as quickly as they need to be,” said Susan Schnitzer, president and CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants. As of October, there were close to 2 million active cases before the Immigration Court, according to TRAC Immigration, a data gathering, research and distribution organization at Syracuse University.

A bipartisan group of legislators, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act in August. If the bill was passed, it would have allowed Afghans in the United States with a short-term humanitarian parole status to apply for permanent legal status and undergo additional vetting.

“This measure will provide a safe haven for Afghans fleeing Taliban persecution,” Blumenthal said in August. “Our bipartisan bill fulfills a moral obligation to the men and women who sacrificed in support of the U.S. mission helping American troops and diplomats. These Afghan allies worked as journalists, translators, non-profit workers, guards and interpreters — as well as other dangerous professions that put their and their families’ lives on the line. This effort is urgent as their situation is increasingly desperate. These at-risk Afghans deserve a clear path to citizenship.”

But the amendment was not included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that Congress passed on Friday and sent to President Joe Biden to sign. It leaves tens of thousands of Afghans in the United States under the uncertainty of where they will reside and whether they will be deported in the upcoming year.

For now, however, the Masoud family is embracing its own definition of “dual citizenship,” even if those lines are loosely drawn.

The first thing visitors see when they walk through the front door of the Masoud’s home is a large Afghan flag. The flag is larger than their television.

“We were under this flag. We lost lots of people because of saving this flag. So it’s really valuable for me,” Mr. Masoud said.

On an opposite wall, right next to the front door, hangs an American flag he drew with his son.

“Now, we are living here. We are part of America.”

The family is going through a visa process with a hope to continue to live in this country after their temporary visa expires. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Yehyun joined CT Mirror in June 2020 as a photojournalist and a Report For America Corps Member. Her role at CT Mirror is to tell visual stories about the impact of public policy on individuals and communities in Connecticut. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Yehyun photographed community news in Victoria, Texas and was a photo and video intern at USA TODAY and at Acadia National Park in Maine. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Yehyun was born and raised in South Korea.