15-year-old Naseem Bakht and his mother, Naik Bakht, in Seattle. Del Gerstenberger photo.
A gray, overcast day greeted me as I approached Sea-Tac International Airport to welcome the Afghan family for whom three UCC churches in Seattle had waited for so long.
This was our third trip to the airport after two previous "false alarms." We knew that only two of the original three refugees were arriving, Naik Bakht and her 15-year-old son, Naseem. A 12-year-old daughter had been left behind since her recent marriage made her ineligible to be admitted into the United States. The family was coming from Quetta, Pakistan, where they had lived in a refugee camp for four years.
Three Seattle churches—St. Paul's UCC, Broadview Community UCC and Magnolia UCC—have had a common goal: to provide for our Afghan family until they are able to become self-supporting. I instantly knew that the painfully thin, tentative woman with a scarf over her head and the teenaged boy at the baggage carousel were the family we'd been praying for since last fall.
I tried to put myself in their place and wondered what it must be like leaving their whole lives behind to come to the United States. I hugged Naik Bakht, put an Hawaiian lei around her neck and gave her a bouquet of flowers.
She and Naseem were very sweet, however, so emaciated that I felt like I was hugging skeletons with skin. Their eyes betrayed a sense of unspoken tragedy. Naik Bakht was very disoriented and had something wrong with her eye. However, when Naseem smiled, it was like watching the sun come out after a rainstorm.
They had one bag between them.
On the ride to the apartment, Naik Bakht sat next to me in my car, clutching the seat with all of her might. Several people were waiting at the apartment to greet the family. The interperter explained that Naseem had been arrested and jailed by the man who was engaged to his 12-year-old sister. That was why the family had been detained in Pakistan and were not on the previously scheduled flights. Naik Bakht finally began to relax after an emotional and heart-wrenching phone call to her daughter. She was broken-hearted about leaving her there.
Now Naik Bahkt and Naseem are enrolled in English classes. They have applied for Social Security cards, received medical and dental attention, and been introduced to other Afghans.
The most difficult problems we've faced are the language barrier and coordinating transportation. We've learned not only a great deal about our family, but also about ourselves.
I can't begin to express how good it feels to be helping this gracious and loving family to become acclimated to their new safe environment.
Kate Carmell, mission chair of St. Paul's UCC in Seattle, participated in the resettlement of this refugee family.
To learn more about resettling refugees, contact Naima Quarles-Burnley in the UCC's Refugee Ministries: www.ucc.org/refugee