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Once strangers, 2 Afghan refugees resettle in the U.S. together

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

The Biden administration last week announced plans to take in as many as 100,000 refugees from the war in Ukraine. When they arrive, they'll experience what refugees from other countries are already going through as they start new lives here. We're going to hear about two women from Afghanistan who are now sharing a home in western Massachusetts. New England Public Media's Nirvani Williams has their story.

NIRVANI WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Fati is a student from Afghanistan whose ability to speak English got her on a U.S. plane out of the country.

FATI: I could tell my problem to the soldier, to the American soldier, to please - I am just myself. I'm alone. Let me go. Let me get in.

WILLIAMS: Fati boarded a U.S. military plane amidst the chaos at Kabul International Airport.

FATI: I am really thankful of that guy, the soldier that led me to get in.

WILLIAMS: She's 19 years old. Malalai is a 46-year-old former administrator at Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense and mother of six adult children. They're still in the country.

MALALAI: (Speaking Dari).

WILLIAMS: "Every day that passes, it bothers me," Malalai says. "If I lose my children, what can I do then?"

We're not using Fati and Malalai's full names out of their concern for their families. They met in temporary housing with similar fears. Both women haven't been able to stop thinking about their families in hiding back home.

MALALAI: (Speaking Dari).

FATI: She's worried. The main problem is the worrying...

MALALAI: (Speaking Dari).

FATI: ...During the night sometimes keeps her awake, just thinking.

WILLIAMS: They've grown closer since escaping Afghanistan. Fati even helps Malalai by translating what she says in Dari. Fati says Malalai feels like a mother to her, but their adjustment to their new life has been stressful.

FATI: I said I want to be with her together for living.

WILLIAMS: The resettlement agency Catholic Charities found them a one-bedroom apartment in Northampton, Mass. Fati says sharing one room is difficult. She and Malalai are a generation apart, have different sleeping schedules and talk on the phone at different times.

FATI: Would you sleep in one room with your mom or with your aunt? It's OK. We both signed for this apartment, but you can imagine.

WILLIAMS: Finding affordable housing for evacuees has been a major challenge for resettlement agencies across the country. Funding is limited, and rent has skyrocketed. Catholic Charities is covering Fati and Malalai's one-year lease under the condition that they secure jobs to make steps towards independence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hold on a second. OK. What drinks?

WILLIAMS: Within a few weeks, an opportunity opened up for Fati. A Catholic Charities volunteer told her about a job at a cafe near her apartment.

FATI: Well, you meet every day new persons or maybe a regular customer.

WILLIAMS: Fati has been working as a cashier and waitress for about three months.

FATI: I have a job. Still, money is coming. And maybe this is not an ideal job, but it is better than to be at home and thinking all the day and counting the problems.

WILLIAMS: Malalai also found a job after weeks of searching. She says she spends most of her morning in English classes...

MALALAI: (Speaking Dari).

WILLIAMS: ...And the rest of her day as an assistant chef at a nearby campus of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Fati admires Malalai's perseverance.

FATI: She is really a strong woman. This is very hard, and it needs a very strong person to go ahead and not give up.

WILLIAMS: And maybe she's talking about herself, too. As both women strive forward, they say their reliance on each other as a chosen family is what they need to keep their hope alive. For NPR News, I'm Nirvani Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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