Joy and worry at an Afghan refugee family’s Thanksgiving reunion

Photo of Julia Bergman
Shamsula Akberzai, left front, sits next to his cousin Laliuma Gharmal, four of her adult daughters, her granddaughter and his son, center back, in his home in Mansfield the day after Thanksgiving. Akberzai immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1992 and settled in Connecticut. Gharmal and her family just arrived and live in Bridgeport.

Shamsula Akberzai, left front, sits next to his cousin Laliuma Gharmal, four of her adult daughters, her granddaughter and his son, center back, in his home in Mansfield the day after Thanksgiving. Akberzai immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1992 and settled in Connecticut. Gharmal and her family just arrived and live in Bridgeport.

Julia Bergman / Hearst Connecticut Media

MANSFIELD — After evacuating Kabul in the final, frantic days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan with just the clothes on their backs, fleeing danger and threats from the Taliban, the Gharmal family was starting to feel at home at their first Thanksgiving in America.

Surrounded by relatives they hadn’t seen in years who’d invited them to celebrate the holiday in their new home state of Connecticut, the family enjoyed a happy occasion. They also worried as several of their family members have not made it to safety.

They spoke Pashto over platters of roast turkey and lamb, mashed potatoes, kebabs, and pulao, a traditional Afghan rice dish with carrots, raisins, and nuts. They were grateful to gather with other recently arrived refugees and grateful to reunite with family.

“We didn’t even think this. That once we will meet each other in America. That was out of our imagination,” Hossay Gharmal, 28, the family’s eldest daughter, said at the home of her mother’s first cousin, an Afghan immigrant who came to the U.S. nearly three decades ago.

But as Hossay’s mother, Laliuma Gharmal, looked around the crowded room on Thanksgiving, she wept. Her heart ached.

Her 23-year-old son, Basir Ahmad, who attended the celebration virtually via Skype, has been studying in India and is now stuck in limbo. His student visa will soon expire, and it is too dangerous for him to return to Afghanistan. The family is frantically searching for a way to get him to Connecticut.

“Now, this is the biggest problem we’re facing,” Hossay, his sister, said.

The Gharmals — mother, father, their five adult daughters, and three grandchildren — arrived in Bridgeport about a week before Thanksgiving after spending ten weeks at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, among the military installations receiving the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who are resettling in the U.S.

In Connecticut, more than 500 refugees are expected, about half of whom have already arrived, with the assistance of refugee resettlement agencies including New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, which is helping the Gharmals, and private groups, many of them faith-based. Some of the refugees, like the Gharmals, are being placed in states where they already have family and friends.

At the military base in New Jersey, Hossay said her mother Laliuma, who knows very little English, cried every night wondering how they will “start from zero” again, after leaving behind good jobs and a beautiful six-story home with nine “washrooms” in Jalabad, a city of more than 350,000 in eastern Afghanistan.

During their first days in Connecticut, one of their first experiences was to celebrate Thanksgiving — a holiday that Laliuma’s cousin, Shamsullah Akberzai, who hosted the gathering, began celebrating when he arrived in 1992. The cousins last saw each other in 2008.

“For us, we honestly chased the American dream,” said Akberzai, who’s known as “Shams.”

“Most of my family, they’re doing really well here in Connecticut and it’s time to give back as Afghan-Americans.”

‘This is home’

Now, nearly three decades later, Akberzai is a deputy director in the Connecticut Judicial Branch’s IT division, and living in a large home in an upscale development near the UConn Storrs campus.

The circumstances that brought Akberzai to America to pursue an education are “completely different” from those that led Laliuma, her husband, five adult daughters, and three grandchildren to seek refuge here.

“They’ve been through a lot of misery,” Akberzai said, sitting in his living room the day after Thanksgiving, surrounded by his cousin and four of her five adult daughters, his son playing with one of the daughters’ children on the floor in front of them.

Akberzai’s brothers, also Afghan immigrants who’ve been here for decades, their children, and their newly arrived relatives spent hours together on Thanksgiving, eventually leaving around 1 a.m. Laliuma and four of her daughters stayed the night — a sign they felt comfortable.

“This is home,” he said. “This is the first time we brought them home.”

Shams was among millions of Afghans who fled to neighboring Pakistan during the Soviet War in the 1980s. At Thanksgiving, he and and Laliuma traded stories of growing up together, being their grandmother’s favorites, and eating her cakes and cookies.

“After many years I saw my cousin and we were so happy,” Laliuma said through Shams, who interpreted. “I can’t explain how much I was happy.”

Shams’ brother, Abdul, who came to the U.S. a few years before him and now lives in Berlin, Conn., gave a brief history of Thanksgiving for the recently arrived refugees. But there was also talk of politics and the chaos that ensnarled Afghanistan as the U.S. withdrew its troops and the Taiban took over, and whose fault it was, Abdul said.

But above all, there was an appreciation that they were no longer in harms way.

“I told them you are safe now,” he said. “Achieve whatever goals you have.”

‘Everything is possible’

The Gharmal daughters are highly educated after 20 years under U.S. occupation, and speak nearly fluent English. Maryam, 18, and Basmina, 24, served as volunteer interpreters at the base in New Jersey — posts that earned them face time with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who visited on Veterans Day, and the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

They are quick to show their appreciation for the troops at the base, asking a news reporter to publish a long list of names of all those who were kind to them and the other refugees there. Maryam, whose birthday is in March, has already invited them to come celebrate with her.

Both women said their dream is to attend Yale University. Basmina was a medical doctor in Afghanistan, and while she knows she will have to start over in the U.S., she hopes she will be able to continue her career here. Miriam was studying to be a doctor and hopes to now pursue her studies here. Another dream, the sisters said, is to go to the White House and meet President Joe Biden.

“Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible,” Maryam said.

They are eager to start their new lives but for now, they are settling into their Bridgeport apartment where they live with Hossay and their mother and father. The second eldest sister lives in an apartment nearby with her husband and three children, ages 1, 5 and 8.

The family has applied for work authorization in the U.S. Hossay said some of the family has been granted authorization while others expect to receive authorization this week.

In Afghanistan, she worked as an administration and human resources officer at the Norwegian Refugee Council — a job that led her to receive death threats from the Taliban.

‘They will kill us’

Months before the Taliban took over, Hossay said she and her father, Khan Aqa, 68, who worked as regional manager for the Afghan Women’s Network, received letters from the Taliban saying their work amounted to “American projects” in violation of their rules. If they didn’t cease their work, the Taliban said, there would be serious repercussions, which meant “they will kill us,” Hossay said.

She couldn’t sleep for months. She moved her bed away from the window, routinely asked her sister if she locked the door properly and told her dad to move into the corner room of their home so that they would be safe if the Taliban shot at them through the windows. Her boss advised her to work from home.

So, when the Taliban’s sweeping offensive in Afghanistan began, “we thought now they definitely will kill us because we had already received a warning,” Hossay said.

In the week leading up to their evacuation from the Kabul airport, the family was on the run, frequently changing their location in fear for their safety, hoping they’d get word they could get on a flight out of the country. Large crowds gathered around the airport.

They were at the military base near the airport when Hossay got a call, instructing the family to go to one of the airport gates and they would be able to get on a flight. They packed bags but were told they could not bring any belongings with them — just the clothes they were wearing, documents they would need to resettle, and any medications.

Once inside the airport, Hossay said her father received a call from “the Talib” who demanded to know “Where is your car? We have already surrounded your house but where is your car?”

“We didn’t know where they will take us,” Hossay said of the flight out of Kabul. “We were thinking no matter where they will take us, at least they will take us out of Afghanistan.”

From Kabul, the family went to Bahrain and then New Jersey. Shams said with their education, career backgrounds and language proficiency, and living in a country that received “20 years of U.S. investment,” the daughters, who refer to him as their uncle, are better positioned than he was 30 years ago to start over.

“I came here. I drove a bus. I cooked,” he said. “I sat with the little kids for six months to learn English.”

He came on a student visa, attending Eastern Connecticut State University, and worked odd jobs, eventually applying for asylum.

His brother, Abdul, who also attended Eastern, described a similar trajectory. When he first arrived in 1990, he washed dishes, cleaned bathrooms, and worked at fast food restaurants. Now, he’s a real estate investor.

“This is the land of opportunity,” Shams said. “I tell people we came here with $100.”

The Gharmal daughters are eager to start their studies here and to work, but they know that will take time. For now, they are grateful they are out of danger.

“At least we are not worried about our safety,” Hossay said.

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that one of the Gharmal family members had a husband who is still in Afghanistan. A different daughter, who is not named, has a husband still in Afghanistan.