Afghan refugees and military families celebrate Thanksgiving together – The Fayetteville Observer

Posted in North Carolina Tattoo on Nov 30, 2021

Danielle Dreilinger| USA Today Network

Shirrahman Siddiqi was starting over. The Afghan military interpreter had lived for five years in Houston and become a U.S. citizen, then redeployed to Dubai. Visiting his parents in Kabul for the first time in seven years, he decided to get married and resettle at home. In early August, Shir met his fiance Safain person for the first time and was delighted to find I like her Im in love with her, he said. They shopped the dowry list it was expensive, $35,000, but thats the tradition. That night they held the wedding ceremony as the Taliban began sweeping the nation.

They left it all behind. Before the couple could even pick up the wedding photos, Kabul fell.

Shir knew he and his family would be targeted. So he picked up his phone and contacted his American brother, the soldier he worked with in Afghanistan, John Rester.

In September, John and his family picked up the Siddiqis at the Philadelphia airport and took them home not just Shir and his wife but his parents, five of his siblings, his sister-in-law and three of his nieces and nephews, with just the clothes on their backs. Theyre among the almost 21,000 Afghan refugees currently finding new homes in the U.S., 660 of them in North Carolina, with 44,000 at camps and bases waiting, a State Department spokesman said.

This week, the Resters and Siddiqis will celebrate Thanksgiving together that most American holiday, with its togetherness and traditions and cornucopia of plenty as a new family divided by language but connected by love.

More: Afghan interpreter for 82nd Airborne Division settles in North Carolina

Its been crazy, Amy Rester said Nov.14 as kids in T-shirts and sequins ran around holding cupcakes. Task Force Pineapple was hosting a meal at Afghan Kabob in Fayetteville to bring together new refugees, longstanding Afghan immigrants, resettlement groups and veterans.

Task Force Pineapple is one of the groups that formed this summer as U.S. veterans of the Afghanistan conflict worked around the clock to get their colleagues out. Mike Adams, a Fort Bragg veteran who is now chief of staff for Task Force Pineapple, described phone calls, texts, security codes, coordinating with other organizations, making sure every seat on every plane was full. They called it Digital Dunkirk.

For John Rester, the mission felt doubly personal. His Vietnamese grandparents died after Saigon fell, taken to camps when they were unable to escape. Its never stopped haunting his mother, he said her guilt about who you left behind.

He decided, Itd be great if the government wants to help but were going to do it anyway.

The Resters tried the State Department repatriation hotline, but the family got turned away at the airport gates, Amy said. They made effort after effort until a Texas representative finally succeeded, she said.

Amy took a month off from work. She bought sleeping mats and 14 sleeping bags. She moved her daughter into her own bedroom and put her two boys in bunkbeds. Her mother, who lives with the Resters, temporarily moved in with her other daughter and bought a sewing machine so the women could make the Afghan clothing that felt comfortable and appropriate to them. For the month, 22 people lived together. It was immediate immersion, she said.

More: Opinion: How we can help the Afghan refugees

This kind of transition isnt easy. At Afghan Kabob, standing before tables loaded with rice, stewed spinach, cardamom pudding and the restaurants signature dish, harried owners Helal Dur and Homa Mohammad urged everyone to eat. As the most prominent Afghan-Americans in town, of course they got pulled in to the resettlement initiatives. Were trying to help them. But right now its so chaotic. And this is nothing! This is Fayetteville! Go to Virginia! Dur said. We should have had a plan.

But the grown women in Shirs family were fasting until sundown for religious reasons. They sat themselves together at a table in the back, the only people wearing traditional Afghan dress and the only ones in COVID-19 face masks.

Matriarch Bibi Nazo evinced optimism. Shes really happy to make her life here, Shir translated for her from Dari. But after being pressed, she admitted that only her body was at the Fayetteville table. Her mind and heart were back in Afghanistan with her four other daughters and their children, including a newborn. (Shir's mother and wife asked to use nicknames in this story, not the first names they went by in Afghanistan.)

As for Safa Siddiqi, when asked what it was like for her to evacuate as a newlywed, she traced a finger down her cheek, mimicking a tear. This is so hard for me, she said, in English, then turned to her husband for language help. Her family is missing me a lot and asking when we can meet again, Shir translated.

One relationship was flourishing with barely any translation. Outside, Shokofa Siddiqi, 4, hopped up on a picnic table and patted the seat to get Olivia Rester, 6, to sit next to her. They couldnt speak the same language, but their mouths were a matching lollipop-blue.

She speaks Dari and I speak English, Olivia explained. I tell Uncle Shir what is Shokofa saying, but sometimes I dont tell my uncle, she giggled. He speaks Dari and English.

Yes! Shokofa said, giving a thumbs-up.

We like to play with toys, Olivia said. Its fun to be around Shokofa.

Shokofa got impatient. MamOlivia, she said, pointing around the corner. It meant "come on." The girls got up and ran away.

More: Fort Bragg paratroopers talk to four-star general about Afghanistan exit mission

Shir, the U.S. citizen, sounded ready to grab the brass ring in America. Its a land of opportunity for those who work, he said. The newcomers need to stand up on their own feet and start their own business, opportunity, job, whatever, he said. Theyll be safe. Hes going to make sure his younger sisters finish school and go to college. The women in his family are going to learn to speak English, and to drive so they can take themselves to work.

Though the Siddiqis have moved into the house across the street, the immersion continues.John is currently stationed in Florida, and he makes it home only about twice a month. Moreover, the women in Shirs family, they cook amazing food and they dont know how to cook small, Amy said. So every night she and her three children cross the street and eat dinner and hang out, play games they watched the international cricket championships on TV. When Amy has to work through lunch, the Siddiqis bring her a plate. Sewing clothing for themselves, they paused to make her the skirt she wore.

Theyre taking care of me and were taking care of them, Amy said.

The three Rester children have started kicking their shoes off at their own door, and sitting to eat on the living room floor.

On Thanksgiving, the Resters and Siddiqis will gather for dinner. As usual, the women will serve, and everyone will wait for Shirs parents to take the first bite. But unusually, it will be Amy who does the cooking.The Siddiqi women areOK with that, they said. Well let her work on one day, Shir translated as the women laughed.

It fits with Amys brand-new tattoo, which she got after the Siddiqis came to stay. It's a line from Psalm 23, on her forearm in Hebrew: You set a table for me in the face of my enemies.

More: See a list of agencies helping Afghan refugees in N.C.

Danielle Dreilinger is a North Carolina storytelling reporter and author of the book The Secret History of Home Economics. Contact her at 919-236-3141 or ddreilinger@gannett.com.

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Afghan refugees and military families celebrate Thanksgiving together - The Fayetteville Observer

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