Yearning to breathe free: Refugees crisis in Houston

Henna design by a young refugee woman.

I shivered as I waited for my friend Charlotte and her three-year old son Harrison to join me outside a small apartment in Houston’s Chinatown area. The bitter wind found every nook in the cinder block stairwell, swirling leaves and gum wrappers and carrying a hint of hookah smoke. 

Last week, my church congregation furnished the two-bedroom dwelling for a refugee family who fled the violence and upheaval in Afghanistan. Charlotte and I needed to drop off a few kitchen utensils and wanted to make sure the family had enough food to last until their case manager visited.  

The door swung open, letting out a blast of heat and revealing a teenage boy with wide, surprised eyes. He held up one finger in the international sign for “just a minute” and came back with a young woman dressed in a long denim shirt, puffy vest, and simple black hijab. 

“Hello! Welcome! Please come in,” she said in faintly-accented English. She ushered us to a bistro table like we were honored guests and not perfect strangers. 

I’d heard from friends who’d helped settle other families that few of the refugees spoke English. I’d been nervous about meeting them face-to-face because I have substantial hearing loss in my left ear. It makes conversations with native English speakers tricky, and understanding anyone with a heavy accent really difficult.  

The young woman told us her name was Shikwa, and introduced her aunt, uncle, and eight-year-old cousin. Shikwa and her two younger brothers have an apartment of their own in the next building, but without a car, bus cards, television, or money, they spend a lot of time visiting their aunt to fight off boredom and loneliness.

“Your English is excellent,” I said as her uncle slid a steaming cup of lavender tea and a plate of dried fruit and cookies in front of me. “Where did you learn?” 

“I was in my second year at university studying in the English department before all of this.” Shikwa straightened her hijab and gave me a pleased smile. “For the past several years, I’ve been working with my aunt. She was a journalist in Afghanistan for twenty years.” 

Shikwa often translated for her aunt as they worked alongside British and American reporters. Last year, they interviewed a female security officer from a different province and the story appeared in a military magazine, complete with pictures. 

A few months later, the security officer called Shikwa with a dire warning: the Taliban has a copy of the magazine. You are in danger. 

Shikwa’s aunt reached out to a contact at the British parliament and their family was granted visas if they could get to London. 

They couldn’t even get to the airport. 

You probably remember seeing Afghan citizens bombarding planes, climbing on the wings, and standing on runaways in a desperate bid to leave the country. The roads to reach the airport were equally impassable.  

A New York Times reporter who had worked with Shikwa and her family asked the State Department for help. They were granted refugee status for six people. Her aunt, her husband, and their daughter, prepared to leave, but Shikwa came from a family of six. Three of them had to stay behind. 

“My parents told me to take the boys…” she paused and looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “They didn’t want the Taliban to take them and make them fight.” 

“My parents told me to take the boys…” she paused and looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “They didn’t want the Taliban to take them and make them fight.” 

Charlotte and I exchanged a look across the table. Harrison was snuggled close on her lap, giggling as he and Shikwa’s cousin shared a cell phone to watch an episode of Peppa Pig, completely oblivious to the weight of the conversation. 

“Have you been able to talk to them?” Charlotte asked. “Or Facetime?” 

“No.” 

The room fell silent. We didn’t need a translator to share this family’s fear. Shikwa’s aunt patted my hand gently, as if I was the one who needed consoling. 

“Is there anything we can do for you? Is there anything you need?” I asked, wishing an HGTV Extreme Makeover team would appear with a rug for the floor and a few extra chairs for the table. 

“Shoes,” Shikwa said, pointing to the pink soccer slides on her cousin’s feet. “We need shoes and more food. Fruit and vegetables, please.”

I looked at the platter of raisins I’d picked at half-heartedly. I hadn’t wanted to eat anything they needed, but I had no idea just how precious their hospitality was. 

Shikwa agreed to text me the sizes everyone needed and asked for a few pairs of socks. Then it dawned on me why the apartment’s heat was turned up so high—their feet were freezing against the cold, vinyl floors. 

I promised to work on getting socks and shoes and maybe a rug and coffee table as we walked the short distance to the front door. 

“Please come back,” Shikwa asked. “It’s part of our culture to have guests. Please do come back.” 

I was silent for the short trek across the apartment’s parking lot, mind spinning as I tried to process their story, their bravery, their sacrifice. 

“I hope meeting them helps you keep going,” Charlotte said, as she backed out her minivan. “We’re doing a good thing.” 

So far our congregation has resettled seven families and four bachelors. It’s been a ton of work, and I’ve complained mightily about the mess of storing several apartments worth of furniture and houseware items in my dining room and garage.  

I’m so embarrassed to have complained at all. 

My heart ached when I heard about the tumult in Afghanistan, but I could change the channel, scroll past the news story, tuck myself into my comfortable bed in my nice warm home. Sitting across from Shikwa, sharing a pot of steaming tea in a too-warm apartment, isn’t something I can forget. I can’t swipe away the tremble in her voice as she talked about leaving half her family behind.  

I don’t have the power to bring her parents and younger sister here, but I may be able to make things a little more comfortable. I can buy a bag of socks and watch Facebook marketplace for an inexpensive coffee table and gently used rug. It’s not much, but it’s something small I can do. 

There’s probably something small you can do too. 

*Reposted from my Facebook page on January 21, 2022.

“Yearning to breathe free” is from the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

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