There were several times this past summer when Rameen Aziz thought his life might be over. Just heading out to shop for food resulted in frequent stops by roving bands of Taliban fighters still celebrating their victory over the Afghan government, propped up by the United States after 20 years of conflict. Each time he was stopped, Aziz thought for sure he’d be found out as a former interpreter and likely imprisoned, or worse—beheaded.
The 39-year-old Afghan refugee, who lives in Sacramento, had brought his family back to his native country for a three-week vacation and to attend his brother’s wedding in Kabul, the country’s capital. The wedding also afforded Aziz the chance to visit his elderly and ailing parents.
What he hadn’t foreseen was the collapse of the Afghan government a couple of weeks before the United States set a deadline to leave the country for good, abandoning the Afghan people two decades after starting a war in response to the attacks on 9/11.
“Our flights back to Sacramento were scheduled for Aug. 21, well before the United States’ deadline to leave,” says Aziz, who came to the United States in 2017 on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) offered to interpreters and others who helped the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. “But the government collapsed on Aug. 15, and we were trapped.”
Aziz says he was able to secure flights for himself, his wife, Sweeta, and their four children ages 6 to 17 out of the city of Mazar on Sept. 1. But those flights were canceled as the situation on the ground grew worse and the Taliban restricted flights in and out of the country.
Aziz says that the trip out of Kabul north to Mazar usually takes eight or nine hours by vehicle, but it took 12 because of the frequent Taliban roadside checkpoints. Because of the cancelations, Aziz and his family stayed in a Mazar hotel, and his trips to buy groceries were fraught with peril for 29 days. The Taliban were in the streets looking for anyone who had helped the Americans, Aziz says.
“There was one time when my cousin and I were stopped by the Taliban. They said they did not like our Western clothing, and to wear traditional Afghan clothing the next time,” Aziz says. “My cousin has tattoos on both hands, and that did not make the Taliban happy, either. They told him to cover his hands. I didn’t leave the hotel room much after that.”
The Aziz family got out of Afghanistan on Sept. 30, flying to the United Arab Emirates first, and then back to Sacramento.
Aziz and his family are just six of the estimated 15,000 Afghan refugees who have settled in Sacramento since the war began in 2001. Another 1,000 or so are expected to come to Sacramento over the next few months on SIVs as resettlement efforts continue for those who helped the United States in Afghanistan.
The newcomers face hardships with language acquisition, finding jobs, starting school, navigating the cultural differences—which are often stark and confusing—and a historic housing crunch.
“Housing is the No. 1 issue, no doubt,” says Jessie Tientcheu, the CEO of Opening Doors, one of five local resettlement agencies working with Afghan families to provide food and shelter. “Part of the work we do is make sure they have access to services. But it’s still a rough transition.”
Tientcheu says the housing crunch is felt all over California, not just Sacramento, and not just with the influx of Afghans. More than 200 Afghans a month have been served by Opening Doors since August, Tientcheu says.
Those on SIVs usually have autonomy on where they can settle in the United States, Tientcheu says, but with the lack of housing, recent refugees are now restricted to placements with immediate family already in the United States.
While the struggles are daunting, many Afghans are making progress in their adopted country. Some have become U.S. citizens, and all have a better life in Sacramento than they had in Afghanistan.
Here are just some of their stories.
Juma Miri, his wife, five sons and three daughters arrived in Sacramento this past July. The children range in age from 3 to 15 years old.
Miri, 36, says he was lucky to obtain housing from Kathleen Babin. Babin is renting her two-bedroom casita to the Miris and helping the family with short trips for food and sundries as Juma continues to battle through the DMV licensing process because of the language barrier.
“I was shown 36 signs with English writing on them,” Miri says through an interpreter. “I did not understand the text on the signs. I missed three and could not pass. I’m really frustrated. I asked the DMV for an interpreter. They said I had to make an appointment and it would take one or two months to get one. I can’t wait that long. I need to find a job as soon as possible, but I need a license.”
The irony is that Miri earned his SIV working as a driver for various private companies and Afghan government agencies. He’s a trained electrician, too, he says, and is looking for a job in that profession.
One of his last jobs in Afghanistan was working for the National Democratic Institute in Kabul. The NDI supported parliamentary elections in Afghanistan. Miri worked directly with Yousuf Rasheed, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum.
Rasheed was assassinated in December 2020 in Kabul.
Miri moved on to work as a maintenance technician with Checchi and Company Consulting, a group tasked by the United States Agency for International Development with improving Afghanistan agriculture. He worked for Checchi through last summer, he says, when the Taliban started getting too close.
“I was being tracked down by the Taliban,” Miri says. “I had to change routes and residences frequently in Afghanistan to avoid being killed by the Taliban. But my brothers, who worked with the Canadian military, are still stuck in Afghanistan. So, while I feel safe here, I am gravely concerned about the safety and security of my family back there.”
Mohammad Eisa Aalemkhiel
By all accounts, Mohammad Aalemkhiel is an American success story.
He arrived in the United States in 2009 after serving four years as a liaison between the U.S. Army and Afghans as the director of the Provincial Reconstruction Office in Logar Province, where he was born and raised.
“In 2006, the Taliban started actions in Logar. They were aware of who was helping the Americans,” Aalemkhiel says. “Security really became an issue. The Taliban were everywhere and targeting anyone working for the government or the Americans. By 2009, it was time to get out.”
He landed in San Diego but soon moved to Fremont, which already had a large Afghan population, one of the largest in the United States. He started humbly, selling goods out of a van at flea markets, and later made $11 an hour working at a small grocery store. He held an economics degree from Kabul University and had higher goals than mere subsistence living in his new country.
He wanted to make and save enough money to own his own business. To do that, he knew he’d have to return to Afghanistan and work as a contracted interpreter with the U.S. military. He was sent to Helmand Province in 2011 and served there until 2013.
“Helmund was starting to get very violent, too,” Aalemkhiel says. “By the end of 2013, I had enough money and came back to Fremont.”
Returning from a short trip to Lake Tahoe in December 2014, Aalemkhiel stopped in Sacramento looking for halal food. He couldn’t find any. Halal food is prepared according to the dictates of the Islamic faith, much like kosher food is for Jews.
The scarcity of halal food got him thinking. He could become successful if he could fill that void in a city that was rapidly becoming as populated with Afghan refugees as Fremont. In 2015, he opened East Market & Restaurant on El Camino Avenue. Now, every Sacramento resident who hails from Afghanistan knows of the market and likely shops there.
“We import things that Afghani people are used to eating, we make our own Afghan bread, and have a halal butcher shop,” Aalemkhiel says. “Our meat is slaughtered by hand and is 100% halal. It is very fresh, never frozen. We also carry rice that only Afghans use, as well as import almonds and nuts that our people are familiar with and you can’t find anywhere else in Sacramento.”
COVID-19 was responsible for the restaurant closing. The Afghan tile floors now hold hundreds of boxes of housewares and boxed food for the shelves of the always-busy market, and two huge crystal chandeliers illuminate it all in the space where Afghans and others used to dine up until a year ago. Takeout food is still available.
Aalemkhiel says he hires a lot of older refugees to work as cashiers, cooks and butchers. He estimates he’s hired more than 1,200 people since he opened.
“I want to help them. I want to train them,” he says. “We have grocery, bakery, butchery and restaurant sections. I’m teaching these people in every section, teaching them English and how to be a part of U.S. life. There are 10 to 12 store owners in and around Sacramento now who started working for me. I trained them and now they own businesses throughout the country. Some are as far as Virginia.”
Aalemkhiel is a U.S. citizen now. He says the transition to America will always be difficult for newcomers because the cultures are so different and the language barriers are just that—barriers—to doing well in school and getting jobs.
“But going step by step, eventually they will all be in my position,” Aalemkhiel says. “The Sacramento area is much better for starting life or a business than the Bay Area, where it’s much more expensive.”
Mohammad Sadiq Naikbeen
Mohammad Naikbeen was happy when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Naikbeen was 18, living in Kabul and excited about his future, as well as the future of his country after the brutal Taliban were thrown out of power and retreated into the mountains.
“We knew there would be big changes, a new life, new dreams and new work,” Naikbeen says.
He says he wanted to go to college but couldn’t under Taliban rule. He helped his family make and sell Afghan carpets during Taliban rule but eventually was able to go to college and learn English. From 2010 to 2014, he helped the advisory staff for the U.S. Marines, mostly working with doctors, moving around the country and going wherever the greatest need popped up.
Naikbeen, 37, works as the CEO of a nonprofit group in North Highlands called the California Hazara Community. The Hazaras are an ethnic minority in Afghanistan and are frequently targeted, Naikbeen says. The Taliban are members of the Pashtun tribe and had been in control of Afghanistan for hundreds of years until the U.S. invasion. Many Hazara were placed in government positions under former president Hamid Karzai, and that caused a lot of friction with Pashtuns. Hazaras comprise an estimated 20% of Afghanistan’s 30 million people.
Naikbeen and his wife, Marzia, have four children, two girls and two boys. The girls were born in Afghanistan, while the two boys were born in Sacramento, making them U.S. citizens. In addition to his work with his nonprofit, Naikbeen is studying at American River College with hopes of becoming a nurse. He also drives for Uber in the Bay Area on the weekends to earn extra money.
Naikbeen says he was able to get his father and two brothers out of Afghanistan and into India in 2018 after they were targeted by Taliban death squads.
“One of my brothers was roughed up badly in an attempted kidnapping in 2017,” Naikbeen says. “I’ve had two friends who worked as interpreters who were recently stopped by the Taliban, identified as collaborators and beheaded.”
His three sisters remain in Afghanistan, he says, with their husbands and families. He says he’s inquired over the past few months with his former adviser colleagues about getting them out, but those colleagues do not have enough clout to help in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.
Naikbeen says being an interpreter is a huge advantage when coming to America on an SIV. The language acquisition also helps ease the transition into life in Sacramento. But he sees far too many Afghans suffer to connect and thrive once they reach Sacramento, and he’s trying to help however he can.
“The cultural differences are huge,” Naikbeen says. “We all need to do a better job of advising and training them better. Most newcomers are not well educated in their own language, so that makes it doubly hard to teach them English and help them to be successful.”