Refugees from Afghanistan, temporarily settled in Santa Clarita, are picking up pieces to start a life in a new community
By Sarah Sikandar
Signal Staff Writer
On a Friday morning, at 9, the hotel lobby is recovering from a clamorous start to the day. Around 8 a.m., nearly 50 school-going children assembled in the lobby and ate breakfast before they were transported to local public schools.
Tamana, who is five months pregnant, fills her coffee cup, which she plans to finish with the two slices of banana bread, in her room. Dressed in black tights and a peach maternity gown hugging her knees, she navigates the lobby confidently. She’s been here since early January, and her stay, along with her husband Naveed, is likely to extend until early April.
What happens after that? She is optimistic but uncertain.
Tamana and Naveed are among the nearly 50 families who have been placed in a hotel in Santa Clarita, following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, after yet another Taliban takeover in August 2021. Images of desperate Afghans at the Kabul airport flashed across world media, a harbinger of difficult months for the local population, those stranded at the airport, and the future of thousands of refugees who spilled over the airport to flee the Taliban’s retribution for working with the Americans.
In the lobby, Afghan men of varying ages, some dressed in jeans, and some in Afghan shalwar kameez, sip coffee from paper cups and chat.
“We don’t want any trouble,” they tell Tamana as she encourages them to share their experiences. “We’d rather not say anything. We don’t have anything to say.”
Tamana gives up. She is the only woman in the lobby, while most others don’t leave their rooms unless they have to, she adds.
Tamana means “wish” in Persian. “I wish I have a daughter, not a son,” she says, stepping into the elevator to go to the room of her friend, Tarana.
A lawyer by profession, Tamana was at work when the news broke of the Taliban approaching the capital. “In the beginning they announced they wouldn’t harm anyone. But we, who worked with the American forces in various capacities, knew they were coming for us.”
Remembering the chaos at the Kabul airport, she says, “four women died when I was at the airport for seven days. People didn’t care. They stepped over you, if you stopped or slowed. It was a stampede.”
Her husband’s family joined them in America, but Tamana’s mother remains in Kabul.
From Kabul to Santa Clarita, these families have been through a series of journeys and makeshift refugee camps across the Middle East – Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates – before they arrived at military bases camps along the East Coast.
At camps, they were offered English language classes, PTSD therapy, introduction to American laws and history.
Since each family is recognized by a case number, provided by the International Rescue Committee, they have been prioritized and temporarily settled in communities across the country. Adults, even if they’re the same household, are sometimes separated because of different case numbers.
A common issue they’re facing is finding co-signers to rent apartments. A two-bedroom apartment, they say, that goes for approximately $1,800, becomes $2,100 when there’s no co-signer.
Abdo Jaber, an Arab-American, is here most mornings these days, helping refugees navigate employment opportunities. He drives them to job interviews, local schools and colleges for enrollment, and medical visits. He says the amount of donations has been overwhelming.
“We received a lot of donations. They [refugees] have received so many clothes, and even furniture, which they can’t use because they don’t have homes.” What they need right now, he adds, is transportation. “Since they can’t drive yet, we’re starting a bike drive. We need used bikes so they can go to work, be more independent, and start supporting their families.”
Most of the men, although semi-educated, have enough experience with mechanical jobs. “They’ll fix the bikes themselves. They can fix anything.”
Tarana — Tamana’s friend — is single and lives on the same floor as her brother, after they were separated from their parents in November. She is hoping to join them in a couple of months once they’re able to secure a lease on a house.
“Some people in the community are afraid that Afghans are going to live here,” Tarana says. “I say that I’m a human being like you. We’ve been taking classes, so we’re prepared to settle in the new environment.” Most of the men are uneducated, she adds, but willing to learn and adapt.
“We have seen a lot of pushing, and shoving, and waiting in lines for the past many months,” Tarana says. “Many people who give us donations think we’ve always been dependent. I wish they knew that we had good lives back home,” she says while playing a cellphone video of her spacious, vibrantly decorated living room in Kabul. “Look at all that food, look at my house.”
Downstairs in the lobby, Donna Manfredi, principal of Golden Oak Adult School, is supervising enrollment for English language classes. “We’re working with the William S. Hart Union High School District, to ensure that these women and men have the basic skills they need to become independent.” Because they don’t have driver’s licenses, the school will organize segregated classes at the hotel bi-weekly.
Manfredi is encouraged by their eagerness to learn, and gain confidence to become a part of the community. “At the same time, we are aware of cultural sensitivities and we approach their needs accordingly.”
Warda Angelica Khan, representing Alpha Miracle Foundation, is working with the refugees to gain meaningful access to the community. Through the efforts of her foundation, she has organized excursions to let children and adults get a flavor of the Santa Clarita community. “We have planned a soccer match for men, which we believe, is a great opportunity to be out in the public.”
Her organization has also arranged a shopping excursion for children at the local Old Navy store. “We’re hoping that through their first shopping experience, they feel comfortable as they exercise choice to shop for themselves. We’re looking forward to see them enjoy it.”
The lobby is clattering once again. Children holding their mothers’ hands, some clinging to their chests, wait in yet another line as mothers fill in their information. This time around, the line will end with hope instead of uncertainty and danger.
The enrollment form they’re filling out for language class is in both English and Pashto — a sign of another community blending into America.