New York Mosque Offers Refuge to Unaccompanied Afghan Kids

TThe Friday afternoon mood at New York’s Afghan Mosque was bittersweet. The children watched with glee as the Imam Mohammed Sherzad discussed their hopes for their lives in America.

They had to fend for themselves as they were forced onto emergency planes by the U.S. during their hurried withdrawal from Kabul. Many left their parents behind. Many others lost their fathers in the conflict and were left with their mother and other siblings. Of the 83,000 Afghans—nationals, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents—spirited away as the Taliban seized the capital in August, about 1,400 were minors, starting a new life without an adult relative.

The U.S. Government took all the evacuees into its custody when they arrived in Qatar from their planes. Upon arrival in the States, they were referred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, then transported to one of eight military installations across the country. That’s where many adults and families remain temporarily housed.

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Some 1,300 of the children have been placed with foster families or sponsors, while others are reunited with their family. Children who visited the New York mosque saw were some of the last shelter-bound children. The children were between the ages of 11 and 17 and consisted of 13 boys and one girl. The boys were between the ages of 11 and 17.

In the U.S., “unaccompanied minors” are usually from Central America, and enter at the border with Mexico, often in numbers that challenge the immigration apparatus. The federal fiscal year 2021 saw a record number 122,000 unaccompanied kids arrive in America, nearly all of which were from Latin American nations that have been at center of the immigration debate over the past decades.

Afghan children were placed in the system that was designed to handle this influx. And if their arrival offers a new prism on the experience of children arriving without adults, the young Afghans carry their own traumas—along with a profound sense of dislocation.

That’s what brought them to the mosque. A volunteer accompany them every Friday on their 40-mile trip from Yonkers, New York to Dar al Taqwa. “The common culture that we have here is similar to one they had back home,” Imam Sherzad says. “When they see us and we are doing the same thing as they were, they feel free, they feel not disappointed because they see, oh, there’s a family here also.”

From the tree-lined courtyard, you will find red-and cream brick buildings. The pathway to the prayer hall is enclosed by rows and rows of wooden shelves. “Being here and being away from their families, when they came into a mosque where they speak the same language, they were extremely happy,” says Yusuf Nasim, their volunteer escort. “Then when the prayer was finished, Imam Sherzad came in, sat down with the kids and showed them such love and understanding. They felt relaxed and calm.”

Nasim was only 11 when his parents fled Afghanistan. He was the Passage of Hope volunteer that spoke Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s main languages. But he also knew their daily lives in war zones. “You didn’t know if you were going to survive the next day,” he recalls.

These children reminded him of his daughter and son, who both have extended family and their parents. “Sometimes I feel very, very sad,” he says. “I see my kids in them, and I look at them the same way. They have the same complexion, the same eye color, everything…” He says the kids had no idea where they were going when they boarded the flights out of Kabul. All they knew was that “these were American planes. It’s like: Come on in, there’s no seat. They’re standing, they’re sitting, whatever. Just like that.”

Passage of Hope, a part of the private social service organization Rising Ground, was founded in 1831 as an orphanage. The organization provides access to schools, medical care and therapy. Additionally, the staff can teach English and lessons in American culture to unaccompanied immigrants. They also help them reunite with their families, or place them in foster care. The kids sleep in box-like rooms with small windows and Nasim recalls that, on the way back from the mosque, one might say: “Uncle, we’re going to jail again.” He reminds them that they’re also going to a place with a fridge full of food, clothes and school. He understands that the complainant is right.

“I have 100 Afghan parents on my WhatsApp. I can reach out to them and by tomorrow I will have 100 boxes of food and clothes,” he says. “But these kids don’t need that, they just need mental stability.”

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However, the community has always made use of its resources. Over three months the shelter was without any Afghan-speaking staff. The shelter’s supervisor used to call Nasim when he was concerned about children who were not sleeping well and seemed distressed. A child who had accidentally cut his hand was terrified of being rushed by paramedics, so Nasim was called to help calm the screams. Fearful that he would be taken from him, the child didn’t realize the fact that medical personnel were using scissors to give his stitches. Other cities have reported troubling stories of minors from Afghanistan who are not accompanied and cause harm to themselves or others.

“The psychological impact to these children is extreme and they remain in fight-or-flight mode, even months later, here in the United States,” a Passage of Hope spokesperson tells TIME. “Many haven’t lived in a safe environment before, so forging trust and adapting to new routines is a long process.”

The quick victory of the Taliban saw the Afghans arrive on short notice. However, it is not clear if the system has caught up. Full-time translators were provided by the Office for Refugee Resettlement to the shelter on January 1. Fatima Rahmati started volunteering around that time. “The books were in Spanish, the staff spoke Spanish, even the quotes on the walls in their rooms were in Spanish,” she says. “The kids have even started learning a bit of Spanish. It’s funny in a way.”

On her next visit, Rahmati, whose family fled Afghanistan when she was just 3, arrived with Michelle Obama’s book, BeingDari. One girl requested it. Shahira Asadi Popal founded the New Jersey-based Afghan American Academy. With her help, she started taking children with her to museums and parks. They prepared Afghan meals at the shelter for the children, and sometimes they broke their fast there during Ramadan. “We have developed a strong rapport with the kids. I wish this was something all shelters could do”, Rahmati says.

“Do they not know how many Afghans live here?” asks Rahmati, who sits on the board of the rights organization Women For Afghan Women. At the time that the children arrived in Afghanistan, Nasim distributed flyers with his brother. “My role was to see them, to guide them, to build a little bridge between the community and them,” he says. “To let them know that there are people here, like myself, that they can come to and talk to and they can open up to and count on. That there’s a community here that cares about them and loves them, understands them.”

This mosque is home to the community in many ways. Imam Sherzad, a 22-year-old man, arrived in Queens with Marzia, her 10-month old son Abdullah and their family in 1985. His heart was set on establishing a permanent Islamic centre for the Afghan community. The Afghan war at the time was against the Soviet Union, and with millions of Afghans fleeing to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, he was “sure people would start coming.” A site in Queens, a hub for Afghan arrivals, was identified and donations flooded in from around 500 families. He assumed that the structure he was creating would only be temporary. “I was thinking maybe it would be 10 or 20 years and after that we could go back to our homeland,” he says. Over 30 years later, there is a 1000-strong congregation.

After 911, the Taliban was already down. After two decades, Afghans were surprised by the abruptness of the American departure, and the imam’s phone rings day and night. This is the country code for his home country. “Everyone was calling and saying do something for us, how can we come out? What will it take to survive in this place? We are not safe!” he says.

Human Rights Watch reports that Afghanistan has more than 50% of its population suffering from anxiety and depression. At the Yonkers shelter, the children have been processing their heartache by placing anonymous letters to the staff about issues they are facing in a special box placed outside the kids’ bedrooms. Nasim was often contacted by the facility’s staff to translate their notes.

A Dari-written message was the subject of one phone call. “I speak Pashto so I had to send the note to someone who told me it said one of the boys was crying at night time on numerous nights,” he said. Nasim, 11 years old, learned from the boy that he felt alone when he spoke with him.

“So I asked him: “Do you want to go back to Afghanistan?” He said no.”

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