Afghan refugee DePaul students settle into English classes University and community groups support new refugees from Afghanistan

Among the rising population of Afghan refugees entering Chicago since U.S. troops abruptly pulled out last August, 10 Afghan women have started English classes at DePaul University, and will soon begin undergraduate classes.

The new DePaul students, ranging in ages from 20 to 24, came from the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh after being evacuated from Afghanistan.

Several women were able to flee Afghanistan for Bangladesh prior to coming to the U.S., while others were stuck in the capital of Kabul.

When all 10 women were finally able to board planes bound for the United States, they flew to Saudi Arabia, then Spain, then to a U.S. military base in Virginia.

DePaul students and faculty gathered basic supplies for the women prior to their arrival, ensuring they had necessary hygiene items and bedsheets, according to Emily Krause, DePaul’s assistant director of Special Programs for Global Engagement.

“Imagine moving to a brand new country with nothing,” Krause said. “We’re just trying to identify all the things that they might need.”

Professor GianMario Besana, associate provost for Global Engagement, says unlike other foreign students who choose DePaul, these Afghan women had no choice. They found  themselves separated from their families in an unfamiliar place without any of their own belongings.

“You go back to your dorm room or your apartment, you open the refrigerator, you’re familiar with all the food, you have utensils, you have flip flops, you have a bathrobe, towels. They came with nothing,” Besana said.

For the Afghan students, Besana said, the transition is also layered with difficulties related to language and culture.

“We were contacted with a request to assist as much as we could,” he said. “I truly believe that our Vincentian mission behooves us to do whatever we can to provide refuge, assistance, education and anything we can.”

The 10 Afghan students, whose native language is Dari, are currently enrolled in DePaul’s English Language Academy, where they are strengthening their English language skills.

“We are not treating these students any differently from the rest of the international students that are coming to DePaul,” Besana said. “We will support them as long as they need to bring their English fluency up to regular admission standards.”

When the students are finished with their English courses, they will then be able to attend the undergraduate degree program of their choice.

“We started a conversation with them, several want to be business majors, one wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a mathematician,” Besana said.

Cheryl Jones, director of the English Language Academy, says students at the academy use their experiences, knowledge and history in class to feel more comfortable learning English.

“It gives them a place to land, before they enter their academic careers,” Jones said.

The DePaul Sanctuary group has also been working closely with the Afghan students as peer mentors.

According to their Instagram page, the group is busy spending quality time with the Afghan students and have started amazing relationships.

“They’ve been extraordinary the way in which they have supported this group of women,” Besana said.

Additionally, they created a GoFundMe to help the students get essential items. The GoFundMe has reached $2,855 as of mid-February. The university is also reaching out to donors to help support the Afghan students, according to Global Engagement officials.

The Afghan women also have help from RefugeeONE, an organization founded in 1982 that has provided resettlement services for refugees throughout several large waves of refugees.

“They’ve been amazing,” said Kim Neimstack, a case manager at RefugeeOne who has worked closely with the 10 new DePaul students.

“It’s just a huge blessing the girls were able to get this connection,” Neimstack said.

Neimstack reflected on the recent wave of Afghan refugees bound for Chicago. “I thought it was crazy before,” Neimstack said. “Now it’s beyond that.”

To help cope with as many as 3,000 new Afghan refugees coming to Illinois, RefugeeOne has hired new staff fluent in Dari and Pashto, the most common languages of Afghanistan.

RefugeeOne has already helped more than 400 Afghans in the Chicago area since August, according to Neimstack.

“We originally said our capacity was a much smaller number and they just kept on giving families to us,” Neimstack said.

“Everyone had the fear [of the Taliban],” Neimstack said. “60 percent of the refugees coming have military or U.S. Embassy connections, working with USAID or any U.S. organization.” There has also been a large number of lawyers and women from women’s organizations who have fled, according to Neimstack.

Despite their support from DePaul and organizations like RefugeeOne, some refugees face potential immigration concerns. The term refugee, in legal terms, has specific requirements.

“If they can’t provide that there are credible reasons for them fleeing, there is a slight chance that the Asylum Office could request them to go to immigration court and possibly return them [to Afghanistan],” Neimstack said.

On Aug. 30, 2021, the day President Joe Biden ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan — the longest war in American history — the Chicago City Council released a letter supporting new Afghan refugees. It read, in part, “as home to more than 500,000 foreign-born residents…this is an ideal place to resettle these families.”

Khadijah, 19, who did not wish to give her full name, fled Afghanistan and now works in the kitchen of Bamyan Kabob, a Rogers Park restaurant that specializes in Afghan cuisine.

“It feels good to have a piece of home here in Chicago,” Khadijah said. “Food is a big part of my culture, so it makes me happy.”

Amid the chaos, Bamyan Kabob and other pillars of community support are there to ease the transition. Farida Miraki and her brother co-own the restaurant, which opened in October 2021, just as the first waves of Afghan refugees arrived. Miraki said she has been able to serve as a translator and guide as her refugee employees learn English and acclimate to life in the U.S.

“We are kind of like the middle people, where we will introduce them to the culture here,” she said.

Miraki and her brother have worked with the Muslim Cultural Center to provide traditional Afghan meals, like the national dish of Afghanistan Kabuli Pulao, a rich stew of lamb, rice, carrots and onions, for the refugees as they come in. The restaurant is often the refugees’ first stop after the airport.

“They’ve been in those [refugee] camps for three months, so they miss the food from back home,” Miraki said. “The first thing we did was deliver food, such as our traditional dish Kabuli Pulao, for about 25 [refugees].”

Miraki, an Afghan immigrant herself, has a large family of eight siblings and cousins also living in the U.S. She always cooks large meals when they get together, and in October, just as the first waves of refugees were coming in, she opened a restaurant for the first time.

“Traditionally, we kind of believe in big families and eating together and all,” she said. “So I always cook. I love cooking.”

As Miraki serves her community and hears stories from Afghan refugees, she said “sometimes I feel like family. It feels really good, that at least we have this restaurant and can actually serve these people; it’s an honor to do something like that.”

Providing a sense of family and community through food makes a huge difference for refugees who have been forced away from their homes. Miraki reflected on the difficulty that they face.

“It is sad, because they are without their homeland,” she said. “Especially for the young kids, it’s traumatizing. So I know there’s a lot going on. A lot will be able to have a better future, so it’s kind of hard to say.”

As well as receiving food donations from Bamyan Kabob, the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in the Mayfair neighborhood has dedicated many resources to helping these incoming refugees. It was founded as a nonprofit organization and mosque in 1969, according to its website, making it one of the oldest in Chicago. Amal Muhsin, secretary for the MCC, says helping refugees is central to its mission.

“Within our religion, we have to help whoever walks in those doors who is in need,” Muhsin said. “What we try to do is make sure that they have food and shelter, and we steer individuals toward jobs. We have been a part of the community long enough that we’re able to find something for anyone that comes through.”

With their Muslim and Afghan connections, the MCC. has seen many refugees come through its doors since last fall. They have worked with Burmese and Syrian refugees in the past, providing additional assistance and financial help after refugees come from resettlement agencies.

“With each family we’ll evaluate their situation and help with the resettlement process,” Muhsin said.

Refugees come in with unique needs and difficulties.

“Obviously, when you’re a refugee or even an immigrant or moving from city to city, there’s a certain amount of assistance you need, and it could be financial, but it could be mental health, it could be other personal needs,” Muhsin said.

Refugees can use all the help they can get as they navigate the varied challenges of starting new lives. Muhsin said she is glad for the wide network and generous, tight-knit community surrounding these migrants.

“There’s a lot of hands in this, which is what we need, to make sure that people come in and they’re safe and they get the help they need,” Muhsin said.

Besides Bamyan Kabob, the MCC partners with organizations like the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, which is sponsoring 100 incoming refugees, and others that provide ESL classes. Within their walls, they provide religious or personal guidance and counseling.

MCC gets funding for their programs and partnerships from the donations of the Muslim community that goes to their mosque. Zakat is a pillar of the Muslim faith that requires believers to give at least 2.5 percent of charity from their income every month. Muhsin said many give more. The money goes towards community programs hosted by the MCC.

“Whatever the facility receives from Zakat, 100 percent goes back out,” she said. “All of our time and our efforts internally are on volunteer basis only.”

Muhsin said that the Covid-19 pandemic has gotten in the way of some of their normal programming, but they have ambitious plans, including hiring additional translators, offering mental health services and training staff in the resettlement process.

“You have to keep evolving and changing for the better, because these folks are going to come in and they’re going to have new needs,” Muhsin said. “You’re never quite doing enough for people. You just never know when you’re going to be the one on the other side of the coin. It’s definitely something that needs to progress and evolve and will hopefully perfect itself as time keeps going.”

For now, DePaul has no plans to host additional refugees from Afghanistan, according to Besana.

“The answer is we would love to,” Besana said. “But the amount of funds that we have managed to collect is just enough to support these 10 right now. We may be able to support one or two more depending on further generosity.”

“It is a delicate balance between staying true to our mission and at the same time making sure that we do not squander resources that come from very hard earned money from the families of our students,” Besana said. Despite DePaul’s limited resources, Besana acknowledges the new refugees require enormous help to rebuild their lives thousands of miles away from their homeland. “The need is immense,” he said.