Story for NOLB by Jessica Towhey
Sometime this year, Hamza Baba* will sit for a California medical licensing exam. If he passes and is granted the license, he’ll be eligible to practice in two countries: Afghanistan and the United States. But in all likelihood, he will only ever work in the U.S. since going back to him home in Afghanistan could mean his death.
Hamza worked in logistics for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Because of that, his life – and that of his family – is under threat by the Taliban, which still controls the village where he grew up and where much of his family still lives. To help the U.S. mission is to sign a death warrant so with a price on his head, Hamza secured a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to move to the U.S. He resettled in California’s East Bay Area where he is now studying for the medical exam and working part-time in his field. He was a specialist in Afghanistan; he hopes to resume that same specialty here.
When he first arrived, Hamza spent a week with a friend in Sacramento. He then moved in with another friend south of Oakland. Now, though, he lives in Hero’s Home, a dormitory-style building run by the Bay Area Chapter of No One Left Behind that can accommodate up to 10 male SIV holders.
“For me as a single person, this house is good,” Hamza said. “I used to share a room with friends. Now I have a single room. I live with [the other SIVs] quite happy. I share my knowledge with them.”
That rents are exorbitant in the Bay Area is not news. For SIVs resettling in the U.S. either Afghanistan or Iraq, it can seem impossible to find decent housing while they struggle to find a job, learn about their new country, understand the public transportation system, and a million other things. NOLB’s Bay Area Chapter saw a chance to lease the building from a Catholic parish and created a financial plan to make it happen.
There are 10 single rooms, each with its own sink, and four shared bathrooms – three with showers – along with spacious living and dining rooms, kitchen, prayer and study rooms, and a basement with washers and dryers. There is also a backyard featuring a deck and a few parking spaces.
Called Hero’s Home because each of the residents living there put their lives in the line to support the U.S. mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the men each sign a one-year lease and pay $650 per month in rent that covers utilities, WiFi, paper products for the house, cable TV and housekeeping for the common areas. NOLB also works with people in the community to provide resume-writing services, employment and educational counseling, social services information, professional driving instructions, and cooking instructions. The house is located near several options for public transportation, and residents are given help in reading maps and figuring out routes.
The mission, as explained by Carol Sebilia, the employment and education director for NOLB’s East Bay Chapter, is “Brotherhood in Action.” This mission is possible due to retired accountant Valerie Benkman, who “poured hours and hours of work into making this happen,” Carol added.
“Hero’s Home is [able] to offer a stable low-income rent to allow people to get established in the United States and to get to the next level of their careers through our support and the support of their ‘brothers’ in the home,” Carol said. “It is wonderful to see how well they support each other.”
Indeed, one of the residents is a young man who had only been in the U.S. for two weeks when he was accepted into Hero’s Home. The other residents helped him wade through the application process for social services and set up a cell phone. Carol helped him find a job as a pizza cook earning $16 an hour. NOLB also provided him with a bicycle so he can make the 15-minute commute each way to work.
The employment and educational services NOLB offers are critically helpful for visa holders to get a start on a good life here, especially since there’s a much different system in the U.S. from overseas.
In Afghanistan, Hamza explained, it’s all about your connections regardless of your qualifications.
“You have to know somebody in an organization to get hired,” he said. “It is very difficult.”
For his part, Hamza is working hard to make the best of his new life. He worked through a nonprofit organization to have his educational credentials from Afghanistan verified. He studied for seven years to earn his degree and then spent three more years in his specialty field. He graduated from medical school in 2011 and while there have been advances in his field since then, he is confident that with time to study, he’ll pass the U.S. licensing exam.
“Life is very fast here,” he said. “But I’m happy, and I feel safe. I like it here. I really appreciate Carol and NOLB for taking this step and providing this opportunity for us to live here in Hero’s Home.”
*Names and some details have been obscured so as to protect his identity.