In 2001 my husband approached me about hosting an Afghan refugee family of four. I was hesitant. But my reservations — lice, tuberculosis, loss of solitude — seem petty and insulting now. In the end, they were outweighed by his enthusiasm.
So our family arrived one evening just before Memorial Day, exhausted from long travel. We stood outside nodding, smiling, shaking hands. Akbar wore a dark suit, Rahima a blouse and skirt and heels, the children ribbons and a bow tie and shined shoes. We had pizza and soda and very few words.
The next day we bought a Russian-English dictionary. We couldn’t find one in Dari, the family’s native tongue, but they’d spent years in Moscow so we found common words through a language belonging to none of us. Spasíba, pazhálusta, ímya, lagushka. The children laughed with our kids and our dog in the backyard. They needed no book, and before long were translating for their parents.
Over the weeks our English developed an accent, and we took to pantomime. One evening my son said he was going to take a shower. He mimicked the spray above his head and pretended to shampoo himself. I smiled. “Kid, I speak English!” Akbar watched with growing pleasure, finally erupting in laughter.
Rahima cooked succulent, beautiful meals with lamb and cumin, raisins and cilantro. We searched for her preferred rice and found a species of basmati I still buy for pennies per pound from an Asian grocer. Its burlap bag features an inked-on label: “Once taste eat for ever.”
Rahima made me tea four times a day, despite my discomfort at her servitude. She asked if I’d like one shovel of sugar or two. We laughed over the confusion of “kitchen” and “chicken.” She taught me to cook the okra I’d never liked in a way that was savory and “deshilous.”
One day we discovered our youngest sons were born within ten days of one another, on opposite sides of the Earth. Sistera, she said, pointing shyly at me, and she has introduced me in that way to her friends every since.
As our common words increased, we began to linger over dinner. We sprinkled our tea with cardamom, bit into Rahima’s crunchy lemon cookies, and listened as Akbar spoke of the Taliban and its terrible grip. “I want carpet,” he said, gesturing toward our Persian rug. “I want car, home for children. Television. Taliban no good,” he said, “no what you want…” He searched, settling on the Russian: svabódny. No liberty. Everyone was silent. I poured more tea. He looked around the table at his children, his sweet shy wife, our children. “Politic,” he said, like you or I might say “robotic.” He slapped his palm on his thigh. “I wery like.”
Our Christian religion requires fasting one Sunday each month, so I fixed breakfast for our guests and explained why we couldn’t join them to eat. Rahima asked, “One month?” — no doubt thinking of the Ramadan fast her religion requires. Well, no. But the practice, fasting in faith and devotion, was another thing we’d found in common.
After several weeks, their English improved to where they found jobs at a thrift shop and auto auction. They moved into an apartment nearby, the next step on the way to citizenship. And then, Nine-Eleven.
My husband was traveling, and I feared for his safety. I cried with the nation, watched in disbelief as footage revealed Muslims across the globe dancing in the streets. I phoned our friends and learned they’d also spent the day glued to the television. That evening the kids and I dropped by, and Rahima prepared a tray of tea and cookies. We chatted: work, new friends in the apartment complex, the start of school, the horrific attack. The talk was quiet. Their graciousness and loveliness were immediate, familiar, genuine. Our kids ran and shouted together in the grassy square outside the window.
Soon they moved to a larger city, seeking better employment, as any American is likely to do. We’ve visited them across the country; their children have grown and are pursuing further education, poised to better themselves and, as they do, make further contributions, again like so many Americans.
Before they moved away, I drove Akbar to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office to take care of some paperwork. Taped to the clerk’s window was a notice: “Warning!! If you have more than 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States it is our strong recommendation that you do not leave the United States for any reason.”
This was odd to me, but it was no more strange than the questions on Akbar’s application seemed, since I’d come to know him, though I understand their necessity: “Are you wanted for extradition for a crime you have or have not committed? Are you wanted for questioning or as a material witness? Are you or have you ever been engaged in espionage? Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or sedition?” (One woman thought a moment and answered, “force.”)
I did my best to explain each question. We smiled a bit. There was some patient, acquiescent laughter, and Akbar checked his answer in a box. In this way we tried to give the official behind the glass a clear picture of Akbar and his family. Some reliable notion of who they’d come to be.
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