Family journeys from Afghanistan to Chicago, with Elgin's help

Nearly two years ago, a family that fled Afghanistan - mother, father and seven children - got a surprise greeting at O'Hare International Airport from members of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elgin.

The church, the family found out, helped them start a new life in Chicago, contributing $8,000 for rent and expenses, and fully furnishing and stocking a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment via a co-sponsorship with the nonprofit RefugeeOne. The family since has grown close to several members of the congregation and visited Elgin last summer to attend a picnic organized by the church.

"We appreciated them," said the patriarch of the Afghan family, who asked to be identified as "M. Jan" because of safety concerns about his relatives back home in Kabul. "All the family are very happy ... and we will never forget their help."

M. Jan will take part in a symposium at 5 p.m. Sunday titled "Open Immigration with Closed Borders," also featuring representatives of RefugeeOne at the church, 256 E. Chicago St., Elgin.

"The goal is to have a greater understanding of who is our neighbor and the commonalities that we have, rather than the differences, which are often what is highlighted more," Associate Pastor Lois A. Bucher said.

Kim Snoddy of RefugeeOne said she'll talk about the U.S. refugee resettlement program and how it might change under the current administration.

Now 42, M. Jan said he was a schoolteacher when he was hired in 2007 to work as a translator and interpreter for the U.S. Army and later the Border Management Task Force in Afghanistan. The job was worthwhile and allowed him to earn a good salary to support his family, he said. But when word got out, he received death threats from insurgents that followed him despite two moves, he said.

M. Jan applied in 2014 for a special immigrant visa, available to up to 50 translators or interpreters per year in Iraq or Afghanistan who worked with the U.S. armed forces or under U.S. diplomatic authority. He arrived in Chicago in April of 2016.

The Chicago apartment is tight for a large family, with the dining room converted into a fourth bedroom, but it's spotlessly clean. In the living room are brown leather couches, floor cushions, a painting of Mecca and children's scribbles on the wall.

Adjusting to life in the United States was harder on his family than on M. Jan because he was already familiar with the food and culture, he said. The kids generally are doing well and the younger ones especially have made great progress with their English, he said.

But his oldest son is transferring high schools because he had problems with some rough boys, and his wife still speaks very little English, he said. The couple had another child in October, a baby boy who came as a surprise. His wife has since had her tubes tied, M. Jan said.

M. Jan got jobs as an overnight hotel security guard and working part-time for IKEA. He now works full time as a driver for Uber, which pays the bills but doesn't allow him to provide for his family the way he wants to, he said. He started an online master's program, but it was too expensive, and he is trying to figure out how to apply for Section 8 housing, he said.

Still, life is good and the family is happy, he said. The one constant worry is the safety of relatives and friends back home, he said. Less than a month ago, more than 100 people were killed and more than 200 wounded by a bomb hidden in an ambulance in Kabul.

"There is no security, no peace, no safety life in my country," he said, adding he'd go back home if that were the case.

Does he think that will ever happen?

"If in my life, I don't know. Maybe in the future," he said. "I was born in war, in 1975, that was the world war in my country. I am 42 years old and still there is war in the country."

"M. Jan" said he used to work as an interpreter and translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He is the third from right in this 2011 photo. Submitted photo
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