Written by Jessica R. Towhey
It’s about 7,400 miles from Kabul to San Francisco. It’s roughly 8,200 from Baghdad to San Francisco. For wartime allies and their families from Iraq and Afghanistan, the distance from homelands to new homes is lessened greatly by support from the Bay Area chapter of No One Left Behind.
Since the chapter’s founding in October 2014, hundreds of volunteers have engaged with more than 260 SIV families to help them settle in, start looking for a job, connect spouses with English tutors, provide computers to those furthering their education or looking for a job, and hooks them up with bicycles.
Why bicycles? It can take up to 120 days from the time an applicant requests and then receives a green card. The wartime allies and their families come to the United States on Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) that are specifically set aside for who supported US military and government personnel as interpreters or other vital support roles. Once here, they can apply for Green Cards. A green card is needed for a California driver’s license. Since it can take up to four months to get the license and public transportation can be limiting, a bicycle can significantly reduce the commute time from home to work.
“A bike lets you access a job that’s farther than someone can walk,” said Carol Sebilia, director of Employment and Education for the Bay Area chapter.
The Bay Area chapter has a partnership with a man who refurbishes bicycles. Bikes are donated to him, he fixes them up and then donates them to the chapter, which, in turn, gives them to recently resettled families. When NOLB gets a bike as a donation, if it needs to be rehabbed, it goes to the bike guy. The bikes retail for about $250 and are usually 15 gears. The chapter purchases new helmets and bike locks.
Despite the availability of bicycles and public transportation, Sebilia said that most SIVs are anxious to get a license and buy a car. California requires a written test (most pass) and a road test (most need to take the test more than once). NOLB offers driving lessons through a professional service. The group will pay for three driving sessions, and Sebilia suggests that SIVs schedule the last session right before they take the road test.
But old habits die hard.
“These guys will often say, ‘I’ve driven in Afghanistan. I know how to drive,’” Sebilia said. “But an engineer needed to take the driving test four times: he failed to stop at a stop sign, he drove too slow, he turned right on red. I tell them, ‘In Afghanistan, you don’t have to stop for stop signs or traffic lights.’”
Last year, the Bay Area Chapter received a $27,000 grant from the Lafayette Juniors, a nonprofit organization that raises money and assists other non-profits in their work. The Juniors hosted a Kitchen Tour, in which homeowners open their houses to show how they have renovated various rooms. The grant is being used to driving lessons, public transportation travel cards, bicycles and computers.
The chapter’s policy is to give computers to the men who are either actively searching for a job, taking college classes or otherwise trying to improve their education. Although Chrome books are the most cost-effective in terms of buying in bulk, Sebilia said that those computers do not support learning how to code. So the chapter also provides some refurbished Dells.
“With all these families, the grant isn’t going to last,” she said. “We want to help them get jobs or take classes.”
While much of the focus is on the men who supported the U.S. mission, Sebilia makes sure to focus on their wives.
Through English-language tutors, the chapter provides lessons for women who are either attending classes to increase their language proficiency or who commit to volunteering in their children’s classes. This program is in its fourth year. Sebilia said there are between 60 to 75 tutors usually working at any time.
It can take some convincing for women – may of whom come to the U.S. unable to read or write in their native language – so Sebilia enlists their husbands. She talks with them about how much more responsibility they will have if their wives are unable to talk with teachers, go grocery shopping, drive children around and do other tasks. All of that will fall to the husbands – all while they’re looking for work, holding down a job, or attending school.
Just as the U.S. military cannot be successful in its missions overseas without local support and interpreters, NOLB chapters depend on volunteers. Sebilia, herself a volunteer, is a social worker and has vast knowledge of safety-net programs, and health, employment and community resources.
“I know the importance of assisting people to acclimate and acculturate to their new community,” she said. “When I see progress toward family or personal stability, I feel happy for them and feel like I’ve helped.”