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Resilience, determination and dreams sustain a refugee settled in Lexington

“The Taliban were searching for people who had worked with foreigners, and they were capturing them,” Roya, 20, said. “I had to save my life, and my family’s life.  NY Times 9/24/21

“The Taliban have banned women from universities in Afghanistan, sparking international condemnation and despair among young people in the country.”-BBC

“Recent decrees issued by Afghanistan’s de facto authorities have placed further restrictions on women’s movements and participation in public life, including an order in late December barring all female employees with national and international non-governmental organizations from going to work”.Jan 18, 2023 UN High Commission for Refugees

These are the conditions that Benesh* faced in the days of August 2021 as the Taliban poured into Kabul. Benesh had completed her degree in civil engineering at the American University in Kabul the year before. She now was working as an engineer on a water reclamation and conservation project for an American firm. Her younger sister was enrolled at the university ,in her first year.

As women they knew that, at best, their lives would be very limited by the Taliban, but possibly much worse.

Benesh and her sister came to see that they would need to leave the country. They faced difficult choices – their mother, another sister, and brother were in Kabul and did not have access to leaving. Benesh and her sister were eventually able to get on an airlift from Kabul to an airbase in Germany where they stayed for a week or so before being transferred to Ft. Dix in New Jersey. While grateful to be in the US, they found the conditions with nearly 11,000 other refugees, difficult and unsafe.  Friends of relatives offered to have them stay in Nebraska for a short time, which they accepted. When that family needed to house more immediate family, the two young women reached out to Ascentria , one of the designated resettlement agencies for New England area, as they wanted to be in Massachusetts for the possibility of attending school. Ascentria, in turn contacted LexRAP, to see if we could take them in. We readily agreed.

Refugees arrive in the US, at a minimum, with the trauma of dislocation from their home country, and some period of not knowing what the future holds. Benesh and her sister were no exception, having left Afghanistan precipitously, leaving family behind to an unknown future, then having an erratic journey even having arrived in the relative safety of the US. Our job, then, was to help these women feel like they had found a safe haven, where they could relax, begin to trust again and, only when ready, begin to think about the future. Initially we placed them in a home with three children. When the hosts realized they had too much on their plates to give Benesh and her sister the attention they needed, the women moved to another host family, a couple they had gotten to know and trust. In the meantime other volunteers had helped them with attaining health care and other services to which they were eligible. The trauma and stress of the past year weighed heavily on Benesh. Processing all that she had gone through, was difficult. Slowly and surely, however, she came to feel a sense of stability in her life. Surrounded not just by her host family, but by a number of LexRAP folk who helped her feel seen and cared for.

Intent on working in order to aid her mother, Benesh sought employment, landing a summer internship in Civil Engineering. Benesh had moved to Boston originally with the intent of gaining an MBA. She held on to that dream. With support from the family that had hosted her when she first moved to Lexington, she gained admission to an MBA program at the University of Texas, San Antonio, which was in turn supported by a full scholarship from a separate organization. Moving to San Antonio in August of 2022, less than a year after arriving in Lexington, Benesh is now in her second semester and doing very well. Her English is becoming stronger daily as she masters the heavy reading load required.  She has suite-mates, several of whom are of Latino descent, and is learning to navigate dorm life in the US. She maintains her Muslim practices of faith. Her interest in becoming an entrepreneur and starting her own business has been aroused and she is exploring that more fully.  

All of us who have supported Benesh are grateful for the support of the community, including the town social worker, the Lexington Arts and Crafts Association which gave her the opportunity to paint, the department of Public Works which gave her a meaningful job, and many more members of the community who rallied to help.

– Steve Stulck

Benesh * ( This is not her real name. We have agreed to not use the individual’s real names for protection as they have family still in Afghanistan)

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