Giving thanks in Morris County, away from the killing in Kabul

Fahim Mashal savors the serenity of Foote's Pond in Morristown in October 2018, shortly after arriving from Afghanistan, where he was an interpreter for the U.S. State Department.
Fahim Mashal savors the serenity of Foote's Pond in Morristown in October 2018, shortly after arriving from Afghanistan, where he was an interpreter for the U.S. State Department.
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Fahim Mashal will be grateful for many things today, his first Thanksgiving in the United States.

“I will be thankful I was not killed in the last 14 years of my employment,” said Mashal, 33, who immigrated to Boonton with his wife in late September after serving the U.S. State Department as an interpreter in his native Afghanistan.

He often accompanied U.S. Special Forces on missions, making him a target for reprisals by the Taliban and ISIS.

Many friends–Americans and Afghans–were killed or maimed. One lost both legs while traveling just ahead of him in a convoy, when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. Two of Mashal’s left fingers were shot up on the job.

In August 2016, as Mashal settled in at American University in Kabul for an anthropology class about cultural differences between Afghanistan and the U.S., terrorists blasted a hole through the perimeter wall and laid siege to the campus. He remembered a fire drill exit and escaped; dozens were killed or wounded.

“I will be thankful for getting away from all that danger, and the everyday struggles,” and thankful for his loved ones somehow dodging the violence, he said this week.

Any day now, Mashal’s wife will give birth to a daughter, their first child. The baby will be a U.S. citizen. Mashal is thankful for that, too.

SHOT IN THE BACK

The journey from there to here had many anxious moments.

Mashal applied back in 2014 for a special immigration visa, a program created to help Iraqis and Afghans imperiled by their cooperation with Americans.

RAMP logoBy law, such applications are supposed to be processed in nine months. But delays have grown worse since the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, reports The Atlantic.

New arrivals have slowed to a trickle, according to Tom Graham, a volunteer coordinating the Mashals’ resettlement for Refugee Assistance Morris Partners (RAMP), a faith-based consortium in Morris County affiliated with Church World Service in Jersey City.

Meanwhile, fighting between U.S. / Afghan forces and the Taliban has intensified, said Mashal, who moved three time times in Afghanistan over the last year for security reasons. He minimized contact with his parents and siblings, for their safety. Before entering his car, he inspected for hidden bombs.

Just before Mashal’s visa finally came through, a friend was shot in the back while walking home one night from a grocery store in Kabul. Nobody heard a thing. The shooter used a silencer.

As a boy, Mashal dreamed of a career in law or medicine. His parents sent him to English academies to learn the language, essential for becoming a doctor.

In 2004, he dropped out of high school and applied for the State Department job. It paid well and his family needed the money.

“And I wanted to bring change, I wanted to be part of the change coming to Afghanistan,” he said.

Taliban control of the capital in the late 1990s was brutal, Mashal said. Gunmen would herd crowds into soccer stadiums to witness summary executions of people accused of crimes. Then they would beat the spectators “for not praying harder,” he said. Hands and feet were amputated for minor infractions, he said.

Mashal thought the Americans would clean things up within a year.

“If I knew it would take this long, I would have considered doing something else,” he said.

Uncle Sam almost made that decision for him. Mashal’s command of English wasn’t as sharp as he thought; the State Department gave him six months to improve.

So he watched American movies and CNN, read the military’s Stars & Stripes newspaper, and listened closely to the BBC and special news broadcasts of the Voice of America.

Fahim Mashal in Boonton, following developments back in his native Afghanistan, November 2018.
Fahim Mashal in Boonton, following developments back in his native Afghanistan, November 2018.

At first, Mashal accompanied humanitarian patrols delivering medical care to villages. Soon, he was a combat interpreter, helping interrogate would-be suicide bombers.

Invariably, they were poor, uneducated boys, some as young as 6 or 7. Many were indoctrinated by extremists at madrassas in Pakistan.

“These are not modern schools that teach science and chemistry. They are taught religious subjects, by twisted people,” who showed doctored videos alleging atrocities by American and Afghan forces. “If you knew what TV was, you would know how fake these movies are.”

Mashal remembers one captured boy, whose legs were badly injured. He came from a poor home where his father had two wives. The sons of one wife picked on him mercilessly, forcing him to do all the household chores.

“He was fed up. He had nothing to lose” by joining the Taliban, Mashal said.

In the madrassa, the boy was told he would ascend straight to heaven if killed on his bombing mission. And if wounded, his blood would smell like musk, a perfume.

“I asked him: How does it smell now?” Mashal recounted. “He said, ‘It smells like s—.”

‘YOU CAN GO WHERE YOU WANT’

Education offers the best chance for Afghanistan’s future, Mashal believes. But few teachers will accept low pay and high risks to staff beautiful schools built by the Americans. And Pakistan will continue to destabilize the region, playing all sides against each other for its own gain, he suspects.

Mashal holds scant hope that Afghan children ever will enjoy the kind of life he is determined to provide for his daughter in America.

While working for the State Department, Mashal completed his high school education and earned a certificate from a year-long business program. Fluent in Pashto, Dari and Urdu, he advised U.S. personnel about Afghan culture in addition to translating for them.

Mashal aims to parlay these skills into a legal career, starting with studies at the County College of Morris towards a paralegal job. In five years, he can apply for citizenship.

In the meantime, RAMP is pitching in with rent and other necessities, including tutoring Mashal’s wife, a college graduate, in English.

“The outpouring of help has been amazing,” said Graham, a Denville resident who retired from the insurance business.

“Our country is built on immigrants. They made us a great country. This is somebody who worked for our government for 14 years. He’s helped Americans. It was becoming dangerous” for Mushal to stay in Afghanistan, Graham said. “I’m glad I’m able to do something to help him.”

The Rev. Janet Broderick of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown is RAMP’s clergy convener. The Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, and the Islamic Center of Rockaway are among religious organizations lending a hand.

NEW HOME: Boonton, NJ. Photo: Morris County Tourism Bureau.
NEW HOME: Boonton, NJ. Photo: Morris County Tourism Bureau.

Two other families have been resettled by RAMP. The Tarakjis arrived in Morris County in 2016 and are approaching self-sufficiency, according to the consortium.

Last year’s arrivals, the Muniris, reportedly are faring well, too. The father passed a boiler operator-licensing test and has landed a good job, RAMP said in a statement.

Mashal said his adjustment has been fairly smooth, although established immigrants seem standoffish, and Morris County’s Office of Temporary Assistance has balked at issuing food stamps until he finds work.

He came to America prepared to find more rules than in Afghanistan: You can’t drink and drive here, weapons require licenses, and you are expected to pay taxes.

Mashal has a Social Security number and a library card, and soon will discover the intricacies of obtaining a driver’s license in New Jersey. 

He likes Boonton’s walkability and its diversity.

“In Afghanistan, the way you wear your clothes, the way you speak, the way you do things, everything is under scrutiny. People will point at you. Here, you see people of all different cultures and religions–Pakistanis, Indians, Mexicans, white people, black people. They don’t bother you. You can go where you want, buy what you want.”

A nurse will host the couple for Thanksgiving dinner–and one more cultural adjustment.

“Turkey is mandatory on the menu, right?” Mashal asked.

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