Monday, March 4, 2024

Making it in America: From Afghanistan to the Peninsula

For some, moving to a new country is the start of an exciting experience. But for Saif Ahmadzai and his family, it was a shocking change of life.

“Back in (Afghanistan), we had everything,” he said. “That’s all gone now. Now we have each other, and that’s all we have.”

Ahmadzai and his family first came to the United States in 2017, not by choice but for safety reasons.

When he was in Afghanistan, Ahmadzai worked with the United States Agency for International Development and had 14 years of managerial experience. He had a master’s degree in public administration and a solid career to provide everything his eight children and wife needed.

But after a security breach with his company, all of that changed.

Saif Ahmadzai, a refugee from Afghanistan, gave a presentation on refugee issues with integrating into communities at Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk. (WYDaily/Courtesy Saif Ahmadzai)
Saif Ahmadzai, a refugee from Afghanistan, gave a presentation on refugee issues with integrating into communities at Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk. (WYDaily/Courtesy Saif Ahmadzai)

“We had to leave for our safety,” he said. “When something like that happens, you and your family can be targeted by groups like the Taliban.”

So, Ahmadzai and his family settled in Newport News with a special immigrant visa, which is a limited visa only available to individuals who have worked with the U.S. Armed Forces, according to the US Department of State.

Once they arrived, Ahmadzai and his family had to learn to adjust quickly.

While Ahmadzai speaks English, his wife did not when she first arrived and his children only knew what they had learned in school. With the help of services offered through the Hampton Roads Refugee Relief program they were able to learn skills they would need to succeed in their new life.

His wife has significantly improved her English and his children have been part of academic honor programs in school.

But the struggles were more than just adjusting to a new life and language for Ahmadzai as he tried to find a job in his field.

He had been applying to hundreds of jobs over the span of just a few months and had barely gotten any interviews. Most of the companies said he didn’t have enough experience in the United States to work for them and Ahmadzai found himself in a state of panic.

Everyday when he wakes up, he has to think about how he, his wife and their eight children will survive. With a rent bill of approximately $1,029 a month, not including utilities, the pressure started to add up quickly.

Eventually, Ahmadzai did get a job. But not using his two degrees or years of technical experience. Instead, he is working in a furniture store. And while he said he is grateful for the work and the business, he knows that if he were back home this wouldn’t be where he would’ve ended up.

What Ahmadzai worries about the most is not his career. It’s his children’s education.

“For my children, I am focused on their future,” he said. “I work hard and I know things are hard for me, but I do that so they can have an education in the future. But right now, I’m not sure with our current financial situation that we will be able to afford college or university. And we have to have talks with them about this regularly.”

Culture shock

When he first arrived, he said his family had a difficult time adjusting to the new culture. Ahmadzai said one of the things he and his family miss about Afghanistan is the inclusive community culture.

“Here, you can be more lonely,” he said. “Back home, they were familiar with more of a group-life where you go to your relatives and you are very engaged in the surrounding community. Here, you don’t even know your neighbors.”

What helped them adjust was becoming involved in the Hampton Roads Refugee Relief program. Rabia Jafri, creator of the program, said there are a lot of refugees coming from the Middle East and African countries and so through the program they are able to connect over shared aspects of their culture.

Being fluent in English, Ahmadzai was able to help people in the program as a data and reporting analyst.

Now, Ahmadzai and his family are permanent residents but they are still working to help others who are adjusting to refugee life.

“People are coming here to start over, to be safe,” he said. “On the weekends I work with them, help them learn, because they’ve come to this country for a sense of freedom and they just want to peacefully take part in the community.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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