Afghanistan’s National Day of the Mother is still one month away. Last year, at a June 14 ceremony, the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture paid respect to the country’s mothers, according to Kabul-based TOLOnews.
To Afghan refugee Maryam Azizpour, that small ceremony was one big charade.
“My opinion is that they are showing their respect to the women just by words, not in actions,” she said. To her, real respect would mean letting women fully participate in society.
Maryam feared for her life, and for the lives of her two young daughters, when Afghanistan’s fundamentalist Taliban regime swept back to power in August 2021 after decades of U.S. occupation. Maryam and her girls fled the country, along with Maryam’s parents, brother and sister. The family ended up in a Hazel Dell apartment three months later.
On this American Mother’s Day, Maryam Azizpour and her family have lots to celebrate. In March, a crucial letter finally arrived from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service bearing good news: Maryam and her daughters were approved for permanent asylum in this country.
“It was everything we hoped for. I have had a lot of weight on my shoulders,” she said. “Now I can relax.”
Maryam said she feels increasingly confident about her parents’ and brother’s chances as they pursue their own asylum cases. Meanwhile, she has applied for a visa so she and her daughters can visit her husband, Jamal Nasser Azizpour, in Germany this summer.
Jamal left Afghanistan four years ago, intending to pave the way for his family to join him in Germany. Those plans were upended during the chaos of August 2021. Now that she’s received asylum in the United States, Maryam is eligible to file a what’s called a “relative petition” for her husband to join her here, which would bring the whole family back together at last.
“Maybe by the next Mother’s Day here, maybe he will be with us, finally,” said Maryam, 31. “It has been very, very long.”
A good life
In Afghanistan, Maryam had worked at the ministry of foreign affairs. Her father handled property management for U.S. forces and her mother was a police officer, an unorthodox job for an Afghan woman. Maryam’s sister and brother were both students at the American University in Kabul.
When the U.S. abruptly withdrew in August 2021, Maryam’s family endured a chaotic and violent journey through the streets of Kabul to the airport, intending to join Jamal in Germany. But when Germany refused to accept refugees without visas, the family made a snap decision to accept the invitation of a U.S. official, who said a better life awaited the children in America.
For nearly a year and a half, Maryam Azizpour has worked to rebuild stable, happy lives for herself and her family in a strange but welcoming country. They’ve enjoyed solid support from a network of volunteers and from local refugee resettlement agency Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
Maryam, who is multilingual, quickly found rewarding work as an employment specialist at Partners in Careers, where she helps refugees like herself find jobs and other vital resources. Her father, mother and brother also found work. (Maryam’s sister settled in Philadelphia, where her husband already lived.) Her children have thrived — and are quickly mastering English — in the supportive atmosphere of Vancouver schools, she said.
But the family’s future here remained uncertain for more than a year. And Jamal’s remains uncertain. Even with Maryam’s relative petition, it could take as long as 13 months to get an answer on whether her husband can move to the U.S., according to immigration attorney Alma Jean of Lutheran Community Services Northwest.
Afghans evacuated to the U.S. were admitted with temporary, “humanitarian parolee” status. That usually means a stay of just two years. Parolees who want permanent asylum must apply for it. Those who don’t get approved are at risk of deportation.
A proposed law, the Afghan Adjustment Act, would clear the way for thousands of Afghans stuck in this predicament, but it has been blocked in Congress by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Refugees are left to figure out their paths, one by one.
Maryam’s asylum interview took place one morning in October. She enjoyed advantages that many refugees don’t have: Not only does she speak fluent English, immigration attorney Jean helped her pro bono.
The interview, in which Maryam argued why returning to Afghanistan would be a risk, wasn’t difficult, she said. But it was followed by months of anxious waiting. Maryam couldn’t stop checking the U.S. immigration website for an update, multiple times per day, she said.
Maryam kept these worries to herself. Her daughters didn’t fully grasp the situation, although she beseeched them to pray for the family.
“If I get denied to stay, how can I tell the kids? What if they send us back?” Maryam said. “Kids these days in Afghanistan, what life can they have there?”
The United Nations recently declared that Afghanistan under the Taliban regime is the “most repressive country in the world” for women and girls, effectively trapping them in their homes, according to Al Jazeera news.
The U.S. couldn’t be more different, Maryam said. She is free to go where she wants and do what she wants. If she wants to go outside and take a walk, she needs no male escort or anyone’s permission.
“I love go out,” added Sediqa Rustami, Maryam’s mother, whose English has improved markedly through classes at Clark College.
“I happy study English,” she said with a big smile.
Thanks to her classes at Clark, she has developed a local circle of Afghan women friends.
Easy and difficult
One day in March, Sediqa Rustami called Maryam at work to say the crucial envelope had arrived in the mail at last. Maryam raced home and tore it open.
“I started screaming,” she said. “I told the kids, ‘They are not sending us back! We can live here forever!’ ”
Since she had protected them from her suspense, Maryam said her daughters didn’t seem impressed by the news. But Maryam, who has been watching them get acclimated to American freedoms, pleasures and possibilities, was gleeful enough for all of them.
“They have friends, they have school. They are making their life here,” Maryam said.
Since arriving in America, Marwa, now 11, has already graduated from elementary school and started middle school.
“Marwa is growing up so fast,” Maryam said. “Soon she will know what she wants to study.”
Murwarid, now 7, is thriving at Hazel Dell Elementary. She frequently returns home after school with a new friend or two, and organizes sleep-overs that sometimes grow to include numerous local children.
That sends Maryam scurrying to track down fellow parents who might be missing their kids, she said with a laugh.
“She has made a group of all the children in the neighborhood,” Maryam said. “Soon I will know all the parents.”
Both girls have absorbed English so quickly that Maryam emphasizes speaking their native Pashtun at home so it’s not forgotten.
Maryam’s brother, Sajad, 26, works at the Frito Lay plant in Fruit Valley. Maryam’s parents, who are both 57, have held and left grueling restaurant jobs. Lately Maryam has been helping her father, Mohammad Ismail Rezayee, apply at Walmart and Amazon. He would like to be a security guard, he said.
“Life is easy and life is difficult,” Maryam said, summing up the family’s new existence. The pace of American life is so fast, she said, the idea of unscheduled down time has become strange to her.
“If I don’t have anything I am supposed to do,” she said, “I have to ask, ‘what did I forget?’”
The big wave of Afghan resettlement in the U.S., which began in summer 2021, tapered off rapidly in early 2022, according to spokesman Matt Misterek of Lutheran Community Services Northwest. From July 2021 to June 2022, the agency helped resettle 151 Afghans in the Vancouver area, but from July 2022 through now, just nine.
There isn’t much Afghan community in Clark County, Misterek said, and more Afghans are leaving than arriving. Maryam said she’s heard of Afghan refugee communities building in places like Tacoma and Sacramento, Calif. But she feels settled in Hazel Dell and doesn’t foresee moving anywhere else anytime soon.
“I have a good job here and I have American friends who can help when we are in trouble,” she said. “The only thing I really don’t like is the cloudy, rainy weather.”
Periodic visits from The Columbian and the resulting stories have given her an opportunity to reflect on her extraordinary journey, she said. Opening up about her life’s major upheavals — and seeing those upheavals on the front page of the local newspaper — was sometimes daunting, she said. But reading about herself helped her appreciate what she has overcome.
“Is that really me? Is that what I did for my family?” she said. “It is the saddest and the happiest part of my life.”
You can help
Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s make-a-difference page for donations and volunteers: lcsnw.org/make-a-difference