Paulette Gove: How Afghan families survive

Paulette Gove, author of “The Choice Between Community and Opportunity” (Frontline, 2016) tells “P.S. I Love You,” national correspondent Paula Zahn’s latest monthly podcast. The podcast is a collaboration between Frontline and GlobalPost. Paulette also shares her stories from the field, about family members trapped in the warfare in Afghanistan and Syria.

To read Paulette’s first essay, click here.

To read her second essay, click here.

For Paulette’s final essay, click here.

One reason the Afghan refugee experience is so frustrating is the almost complete lack of access to medical care. Their living conditions and dietary habits force them to be largely isolated from the medical facilities and resources of Western countries, since there is not enough space or access.

In terms of food, the resources for fresh fruit and vegetables are very few and unstable. Almost everything one eats can easily be picked off the fields as Ghor season starts. The safe alternative is the standard bitter spices like ginger, cardamom, saffron and nutmeg.

Most likely, most Afghan refugees are exposed to extreme levels of poverty and social isolation. Whether because their roots are in Afghanistan or that they’ve been ethnically or culturally displaced, they’re forced to fend for themselves in a country that is at war. Because many are even found in remote mountain regions, where food, water and shelter are scarce, and entirely exposed to the threat of avalanches, they are forced to turn to local people for help.

When serious accidents occur, ethnic and cultural prejudice inevitably combines with a lack of formal options for further assistance, placing the families in a very challenging situation. Usually, a larger community is not responsive to an immediate need, but tends to wait until there is some form of help in place. Similarly, if a crisis presents itself, there’s little doubt that the government will come to the aid of these tribesfolk, but still, the African-American may be pushed to the back of the line.

Up until this point, I thought that these problems were just a problem unique to Afghanistan, but in January I had an opportunity to speak with families living in the U.S. who have also moved into the suburbs. I had a chance to listen to the stories of English-speaking and English-learning immigrant families, as well as those whose English had not improved and who came to America with a background in the fields of psychology and anthropology, but neither grew up with English language skills. Some of these families arrived here with financial support from overseas. While some came from countries with more advanced resources, such as Canada and Europe, a large number had come from Afghanistan.

While the majority of those I interviewed had not yet received English language instruction, they told me that they were working diligently to complete their college studies. Whether as a choice or forced, these children chose to achieve their dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers or pilots, even if they just want to live outside the war.

One of the reasons many Afghan parents chose to bring their children to the U.S. is the desire to provide for their families, both financially and emotionally. They see the U.S. as a means of economic success for their children, so they send them to school. And since the largest percentage of Afghan refugees in the U.S. is from the Hazara group of individuals, who are Shiites, the majority of schools there are reserved for both Afghan and Shiite students.

But one major difference is that Afghan refugee children are confined to the St. Vincent’s section of the U.S.A., a Catholic charity organization. Indeed, Afghan refugee children rarely move beyond the quarantine of this community, unless they are pulled out by their families and officially enrolled in a school program. The parents of these students are unable to pursue their professional careers and careers in a Western country because they can’t take it in the states, so they’re forced to accept the poverty of the continent they left behind. In turn, these American families are often lucky to find one or two paid jobs.

In the U.S., one might expect many of these young Afghan immigrant students to pursue higher education. But as I heard these students tell me, it’s difficult to plan a college career, especially for Afghan students with limited English proficiency, since U.S. colleges are not generally teaching classes in Farsi. Worse yet, the prospect of home schooling can be prohibitive, both financially and otherwise. Worse still, undocumented refugees are not eligible for many forms of academic scholarship.

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