By Kieran Loughney
Scenes of missile attacks, reports of girls denied an education, stories of people fleeing violence or being trained to engage in combat. Gleaned from news reports, this was all I knew of the life of citizens in Afghanistan. Then I met Fatima.
As a child welfare worker, I had first encountered Fatima’s daughter Farah (both their names are fictionalized) when assigned to drive her from northeastern Pennsylvania to a psychiatric facility in a Pittsburgh suburb, a trip that took more than five hours. Farah, after repeatedly skipping school, had been arrested for her second shoplifting offense. Her behavior had become unstable enough to convince the court that a stay in a psychiatric facility would be beneficial. A week later, Fatima and I took the same route again to visit her daughter.
During our trip, Fatima spoke of life in her former home in halting but easily-understood English. “Each spring there is a pilgrimage in our region,” she told me. “As the crowds pass by, it’s our tradition to give pilgrims food to help them on their journey. My husband went out to work at his stall in the market that morning,” she continued. “I was washing breakfast dishes and looking out the kitchen window when the blast came. Until I saw the broken glass on the floor, I did not realize what had happened. The window where I stood exploded inward, all over the kitchen. Glass was everywhere but God protected me. I did not have a scratch, but I knew a bomb had gone off in the market and thought my husband must be hurt.”
Since coming to the United States just one year before the so-called Muslim travel ban was imposed by the Trump administration, Fatima and her kids had endured their share of hardships: rent and other expenses were always so much greater than Fatima’s wages could cover; the children faced challenges fitting in at school, academic struggles, and finding stable friendships. When I asked her if it was a difficult decision to leave Afghanistan, she told me, “I had no choice.”
“My husband was a mean, controlling man,” Fatima revealed. “He often became violent with me and the children. On the morning of the blast, instead of going to work at his stall in the market he chose to help a friend feed the pilgrims along the route. His one rare act of charity,” she said with a rueful chuckle, “was enough to convince God his life should be spared.”
We stopped at a diner for lunch and I offered to pay for her meal. Her reaction was one of surprise and gratitude. “It’s no big deal Fatima,” I reassured her. “The agency will reimburse me. Order whatever you want.” She struggled to make a choice from the menu. I asked what kind of food she enjoyed. She replied with one word, “Spicy.” I suggested chili con carne. After I described it she chose a bowl, relishing the flavors. While looking over the dessert menu, she asked what à la mode meant. “It just means with a scoop of ice cream. You know, like pie and ice cream,” I replied. Fatima had never eaten pie, so I recommended apple. “There isn’t a more American food,” I joked. She ordered a slice and grinned at me as she told the waitress, “à la mode.”
Fatima disclosed more about her departure from Afghanistan. “I had been secretly planning to take the children and leave my husband. His violent outbursts were getting worse. We didn’t feel safe with him anymore.” She had little to say of the details of her escape, only adding, “God helped us get away from him.” Returning to Afghanistan, she made clear, was not an option. “My husband will certainly find us and kill us if we ever go back.” For Fatima and her children, America, they hoped, would provide a safe space.
But rapidly changing circumstances posed a new threat for the family. The same month we met, January of 2017, the newly formed Trump Administration announced sweeping changes to America’s immigration policy. For Fatima and her family, this meant that they faced possible deportation back to Afghanistan and the mortal danger that would await them there. As is often the case in social work, upon her daughter’s successful completion of treatment Fatima’s family no longer required the services we provided and our agency closed her case. In a way, Fatima became just another image related to Afghanistan. But her story and her struggle remain with me. Unfortunately, I will likely never know what ultimately became of her and her children.
Once again, my job revealed to me the travails of those outside my family and friends. My encounter with Fatima expanded my understanding of the worldwide scope of the inequities people experience. I could now understand more clearly the struggles of my own Irish ancestors fleeing famine in the mid-1800s.
Now, in 2021, the Biden Administration has begun to roll back the unjust restrictions and inhumane policies imposed upon immigrants and refugees during the past four years. The United States currently faces a surge of immigrants (many of them unaccompanied minors) at our southern border, a clear indication of the desire for a better life shared by many who risk everything to get here. Much of the world knows America as a place where one might prosper, find justice, and realize one’s full potential. In truth, those coming here from around the world become the transformative force of life in this country.