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Abi AswegeJuly 07, 2022
image by Zeferli for iStock.

“I love your ring,” I said to the Afghan woman who sat across the table from me. “Turquoise makes the most beautiful jewelry.” My words were repeated in Farsi by the volunteer translator who sat beside us. The woman’s eyes widened a bit, and she quickly removed the ring from her finger and tried to place it in my hand. The interpreter said that she wanted to give me the ring for helping her begin her asylum application.

I firmly refused her gift. She had just fled Afghanistan with next to nothing. The bright orange and yellow dress she wore was probably one of her few possessions. Her dark hair was peppered with silver strands and she had deep brown eyes that held the weight of her experiences. She had left many of her friends and family behind in her home country. With tears and a harrowed voice she recalled the death, pain and destruction the Taliban brought to her home. And she wanted to give me her ring.

The bright orange and yellow dress she wore was probably one of her few possessions.

It was late December and we were sitting in a small building in Fort McCoy, a military base in rural western Wisconsin, where thousands of Afghan guests waited to be resettled in the United States. They lived in barracks. The bare walls and cold linoleum floors were anything but homey. The bitter Wisconsin winter made the buildings seem even more cold and unwelcoming.

I and about 40 other students from the Marquette law school learned of this volunteer opportunity through our assistant dean for public service. The lengthy email explaining the call for help stirred up emotions in me similar to the ones that sent me to pursue my J.D. in the first place. I wanted to serve others and advocate on their behalf.

It was the way of Christ, who is the model of pure, unconditional love. He was the master of meeting people where they were at, tending to the marginalized, forgotten, shamed and outcast. He showed them love and care regardless of their social or class status, their nationality or their political affiliations.

Christ was the master of meeting people where they were at, tending to the marginalized, forgotten, shamed and outcast.

I volunteered to help. Immediately after completing our fall semester finals and days before Christmas, we took the trip up to Fort McCoy. There we were given an hour or two of immigration law training. Each Afghan guest was granted an emergency refugee status, but needed to begin the asylum application to secure a permanent stay.

The application for asylum is an extensive document filled with complex language. I remember making eye contact with my classmate Emily, exchanging an understanding that the few hours of training we were receiving was not going to prepare us for the next few days.

But nothing could prepare me for the stories and statements I heard from the Afghan guests. As a political science major, I had studied the Middle East and the American presence in Afghanistan since college. However, there are no words to describe the difference between reading about the Taliban’s merciless destruction of Afghan citizens on paper and hearing the same stories spoken from someone who has suffered at their hands.

Fleeing their homeland, many escaped with only their lives and the clothes on their backs, leaving countless loved ones still in danger.

Each of the 141 guests that we assisted over a three-day period had a powerful story. I worked with men who lost their fathers because they refused to pay money the Taliban demanded to fuel their operatives. A woman told a story of her cousin who had become permanently injured by acid being thrown in her face when the Taliban entered her home. Every individual I worked with had lost a loved one, family or friend at the hands of the Taliban.

Apart from losing loved ones, each guest mourned losing their home. They helplessly watched as their children’s schools were destroyed, the stores and markets they shopped at were demolished. Fleeing their homeland, many escaped with only their lives and the clothes on their backs, leaving countless loved ones still in danger.

The most painful part of the application process was watching the guests relive their trauma as they told their stories.

The most important section of the application for asylum is the personal statement. Here, the individual seeking asylum must prove to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that they are escaping violence and persecution. The box allotted for the personal statement was not large enough to fit the experiences lived by these Afghan guests. The most painful part of the application process was watching the guests relive their trauma as they told their stories. Our job as volunteers was to structure their stories chronologically and to find the gaps or holes that the guests needed to fill.

The application process requires the applicant to “prove” they are in danger if their asylum application is not granted. Evidence proving the danger could be provided through testimony, pictures, videos, recordings or documents. While the Afghan guests may not have come with any material possessions, many possessed horrific pictures of injuries, threatening letters, videos with sounds of gunshots ripping through villages.

A recurring pattern was the number of guests who were seeking asylum because of their involvement working alongside the U.S. government, the U.S. military, or working with U.S. companies through contractors. The mere association with America placed a large target on everyone’s back.

For the Afghan women, another pattern was the lack of education and work opportunities they had access to. Out of all the women I spoke to, only one had been given the opportunity to pursue high school and graduate level education. She had worked as a nurse prior to coming to the United States.

Many guests  were seeking asylum because they had worked alongside the U.S. government, the U.S. military, or with U.S. companies through contractors.

I often have felt the struggle of being a minority first-generation student in the legal field. Gaining access to higher education required more work than many of my peers. I am the oldest of six children and grew up in a family that lived just above the poverty line. My parents went to the ends of the earth to provide for my siblings and I. But in order to create opportunities for myself I had been working nearly full time since I was 15 years old.

In spite of these barriers, it dawned on me as I worked with our guests that at least I had the opportunity to access higher education. To the Afghan women, the possibility of receiving any education, let alone a professional degree, was not even on the table.

Over the span of three days, we assisted hundreds of guests. Many of the Afghan guests themselves volunteered their time and energy as translators for one another. Even as the translator helped us exchange words, the emotions the applicants expressed through their eyes and body language alone was powerful.

It dawned on me as I worked with our guests that, in spite of the barriers I overcame to get there, at least I had the opportunity to access higher education.

While most of our conversations were heavy with traumatic experiences and pain, there was a shift when the law students handed the paper application to each guest. You could sense that something had changed.While the Afghan guests knew they had many barriers ahead of them, including the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications, they had taken the first step in securing their newfound home in the United States.

The journey from Fort McCoy back to Milwaukee was a quiet one. It was December 23, and over the next two days I would be surrounded by family and friends, good food, drinks and wrapped gifts. I would return to my apartment where I was safe and warm and would be able to spend a month off from law school.

 

The hundreds of Afghan guests I met and worked with would not be having a similar experience. Many of their friends and family members were still in Afghanistan, often moving from town to town to escape the violence and threats of the Taliban. I felt guilty for being able to live the life I have been blessed with, so different from an Afghan girl, simply because I was born in the United States.

My feelings were validated by other law students who had similar experiences. Each of us has stories of Afghan guests who impacted us, and will always have a place in our hearts. My life changed after those three days at Fort McCoy. I had a renewed perspective of the world around me. I often keep their wellbeing and safety in my prayers. While I may never cross paths again with the Afghan guests, the impression they have left on me will last a lifetime.

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