When I landed in JFK I couldn’t speak, I knew English but when people spoke to me, I couldn’t answer. I was culture shocked. I was just looking and observing. It took me a year, everything is so different.”
Kaylen Erfani, a software engineer from New Jersey, traveled over 2,000 miles using her own funds to Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Complex in New Mexico to help Afghan evacuees start their new lives in the United States.
Erfani has a shared experience with the Afghan evacuees temporarily living in New Mexico. She moved from Iran to New Jersey in 2016 to further her education. Leaving her friends and family behind was emotionally difficult for Erfani.
“I thought I landed on another planet, it wasn’t Earth. People look different, people talk different, people eat different, dress up different, act different,” said Erfani.
Erfani encountered an array of obstacles after moving away from everything she had ever known.
She faced challenges of being in a new country day by day, such as learning how to shop at the supermarket, obtain a driver’s license, and just interacting with ordinary people daily. Erfani said it wasn’t easy;
adjusting took a long time, and she made a lot of mistakes along the way.
“It took me almost two years to be comfortable,” Erfani said.
Much like Erfani’s experience, Afghan evacuees on Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Complex in New Mexico are going through a culture change, leaving everything they have known in their home country and starting their new lives in America where everything is completely different.
“I grew up there—I’m from Iran. I have a lot of friends who are Afghans. My hometown is close to Afghanistan so we had a lot of interactions,” Erfani said. “It just brought up a lot of memories and I know the people. I
know the culture. I know their religion.”
Her cultural familiarity gave her confidence in the ability to connect with the Afghan evacuees.
“I felt the pain of women and children,” said Erfani. She sympathizes with their situation and hopes they understand they have people who are here to help them through this transition.
Desperately wanting to help, Erfani searched for any opportunity to let her ease the pain of the Afghan evacuees.
“When I saw on the news all the craziness that was going on, I was looking to find a way to help them out. I was trying to look for organizations to lend them money or be there physically, if they needed me somewhere.”
After applying through multiple volunteer organizations, she eventually got an email informing her that Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Complex was in need of female translators.
“I couldn’t drive overnight,” said Erfani. “It was like five days. I love traveling, but it was my first long trip by myself.”
Erfani drove over 25 hours, more than 2,000 miles and through nine states. She spent her own money for gas, food, and lodging.
When Erfani arrived at Doña Ana she became part of the female engagement team, whose current mission is to help female Afghans successfully transition from a Middle Eastern lifestyle to a western lifestyle while providing them with information about their opportunities in America.
“We’re trying to get females out of their comfort zone,” Erfani said.
The ultimate goal of the team is to help limit the culture shock because of the level of visibility and independence that comes in American society that is not customary in Middle Eastern cultures.
“Everyday I wake up and I know I’m in the right place and I’m doing the right thing for the people who need it,” said Erfani.
Walking from tent to tent, the female engagement team passes out brochures, written in Dari and Pashto, that list classes held on Doña Ana for females to attend. The classes teach them about the education system in America, their rights, and familiarize Afghan evacuees with the laws and various religions in the United States.
“We have a female Army officer, we have a female doctor, and my background is a software engineer. They’re gonna see that a female can become an engineer,” said Erfani.
Erfani feels her services are definitely making an impact in the Afghans’ lives.
“They feel comfortable because I’m from where they’re from, in terms of region,” Erfani said.
The feedback she has received has been positive.
“I’ve seen a lot of them open up to me,” Erfani said. “I’m trying to be a good translator and feel their pain.”
Erfani’s work at Doña Ana is a shared first step; she’s grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of America’s newest citizens.
Author: Pfc. Maxwell Bass – Operation Allies Welcome – Operation Allies Refuge
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