Building a New Life in an Unlikely Migrant Destination

Peter Kujawinski, an author and a former American diplomat, reported this article from Nashville.

The New York Times

“Life in Afghanistan, in Kabul,” said Alyas Tajik, “was perfect.” It was a bright morning in September, and the 20-year-old was sitting in the living room of a newly built rental townhouse in south Nashville, alongside his parents and two younger siblings.

Alyas explained that before they immigrated, he, his family and his wife lived in a Kabul apartment they owned in the residential neighborhood of Khair Khana. Neighbors “respected us a lot, because of my mom and my dad,” said Edris, Alyas’s 13-year-old brother.

Their mother, Manizha Tajik, worked in a local clinic as a medical professional, and their father, Abdul Latif Tajik, worked for U.S. government contractors. Extended family lived nearby, and on weekends, everyone would spend time together.

In 2021, Alyas was recently married and preparing to enter university. He liked to go out with friends for late-night pizza. It’s what he was doing one night in August, when the Taliban entered Kabul. He only realized what had happened when he saw his mother’s terrified face the next morning.

The Tajiks belonged to a group of 540 Afghans that were resettled in Nashville, a number that increased from an initial 350 because of the area’s capacity to welcome refugees. Now the family occupies a transitory place between Afghanistan and their new home. The plants, furniture, dishes and decorations in their new townhouse were already included: The only memento they brought from Afghanistan is a pair of small camel statues, which sit tentatively on a ledge under a flat screen television, on either side of a book entitled “Country Music Hair,” which also came with the house.

Acting as the spokesman and translator for his family, Alyas recounted their frantic departure from Kabul. (The Tajiks were particularly concerned about their safety given Abdul Latif’s work with U.S. government contractors.) As the Taliban spread throughout the city, Abdul Latif told the family to join him at the airport, where, as luck would have it, he had been working. They quickly abandoned their apartment, along with most of their possessions. They finally arrived after a harrowing night on the street hiding from the Taliban.

Abdul Latif arranged for a car from inside the secured airport to pick the family up. As they were about to enter, Alyas recently remembered a Taliban soldier telling him, “If you come back again, I swear we will kill you.”

The family left Kabul on a military cargo plane and arrived in the United States on Aug. 29, 2021. Their first three months were spent in Fort Pickett, a military base in Virginia that temporarily housed Afghans awaiting resettlement. Communication with the outside world was spotty.

The Tajiks landed in Nashville at 2 a.m. late last November. They knew nothing about the city. The airport was empty and at first, they could not find anyone. Alyas remembers asking himself questions for which he had no immediate answers: “How do we spend our time? How do we start our life?”

Making the transition even more difficult was Alyas’s separation from his wife, Khoshbo Ayoubi. She had been visiting family in Tajikistan, but because of the speed of the Taliban takeover, she was unable to get to the Kabul airport and join Alyas and his family on their journey to the United States. She and her family remain in Tajikistan. “It was not our plan for me to go alone and leave my wife,” Alyas said. “She said, ‘You are going, what am I going to do here?’ I said, ‘Let me go, and I will find a way to bring you here.’”

This article is part of How I Got Here, a series about immigrants and migrants in America.

Nashville is known for its music scene and bachelorette parties, not necessarily as an entry point for refugees and immigrants. But a growing number of families like the Tajiks now call it home: a center of Americana transformed by new arrivals. The Kurdish community in Nashville, for example, is over 22,000 people, the largest in the United States. It has substantial economic, cultural and political power. Kurds call it “Nashmil,” which is a Kurdish female name.

“In terms of Nashville being a friendly city for immigrants and attracting immigrants, I would brag about that,” said former Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville. (In 1990, 2.5 percent of the Nashville-area population was foreign-born, compared to 12.9 percent during the period between 2016 and 2020, according to the U.S. census.)

Mr. Dean said when he first arrived in 1978, Nashville did not have a diverse population. “You sort of had a significant white population and a significant Black population,” he said. “But it was not a diverse city in terms of a rich ethnic mix.” It was around that time, however, when the city welcomed its first wave of Kurdish refugees fleeing conflict in Iraq. Successive waves of Kurds arrived in the following decades in response to more outbreaks of conflict and oppression. Refugees from other countries, including Afghanistan, followed.

With the assistance of their resettlement agency, the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, or N.I.C.E., the Tajik family have found jobs, a place to stay and help with necessities such as getting a driver’s license. Abdul Latif has a physically demanding job cutting beef at a meatpacking plant from 4 p.m. to midnight. Manizha, a respected health care provider in their Kabul neighborhood, works on a packaging line filling medicine orders. Alyas and his cousin work there, too.

Edris is in eighth grade, and his sister, Khoshi, is starting sixth. They have climbed onto the first rung of becoming new Americans — the entire family is seeking U.S. citizenship — but the next steps are not easy. Before resuming her better-paying and more satisfying medical work, for example, “I have to learn English first,” said Manizha.

The Kurdish community had already taken root in Nashville when Nawzad Hawrami and his wife arrived in 1997, part of an evacuation of Kurds from northern Iraq as Saddam Hussein’s forces moved in. Like the Tajik family, they fled fearing they would be targeted for having worked with the United States. Mr. Hawrami had heard positive reports about Nashville before arriving.

Mr. Hawrami, one of the leaders of the city’s Salahadeen Center, said it has become common for politicians to visit. Now an American citizen, Mr. Hawrami says Nashville has been a welcoming place. He fondly remembers the birth of his first child, which took place only days after he and his wife arrived in Nashville. Neighbors showered them with gifts.

The number of Kurdish refugees in Nashville has tailed off in recent years, but recent refugees from other countries such as Afghanistan and Ukraine benefit from the city’s attributes: a booming regional economy, plentiful jobs, a lower cost of living and support networks for “New Americans.” According to N.I.C.E., an average of 600 to 700 refugees are resettled in Nashville each year, though in 2022, that number is trending higher.

Though Alyas likes Nashville, he cannot stop thinking about Kabul. “I lost my whole life,” he said. There, he was a respected member of a community, with endless possibilities before him. Speaking of his current situation, he said, “I don’t like this life — it’s so hard.”

Most days, Alyas comes home from work around 8 p.m. and eats dinner with everyone in his family except for his father, who would be still at the meatpacking plant. He then heads upstairs and spends many hours deep into the night on WhatsApp with friends in Afghanistan and his wife in Tajikistan. For many immigrant families, tools like WhatsApp, FaceTime and social media have become an essential tether to their homelands. Alyas often does not go to bed until 3 or 4 in the morning, which means his days in Nashville are on Afghanistan Time. The Tajik family has a WhatsApp group of over 30 people — a virtual recreation of their life in Kabul.

These intense virtual connections do not give the Tajik family much solace. “Actually, I have a lot of tension and depression,” Alyas said. He is terrified that the Tajikistan government may deport Ms. Ayoubi back to Afghanistan before she is granted humanitarian parole to enter the United States. If she is forced to return to Afghanistan, she is in more danger and their chances of reuniting soon are lower because there is no U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan to process the humanitarian parole. He carries the fate of his wife and his family on his shoulders. “Every problem is on me,” he said. “I’m doing this all myself.”

There are other sorrows. Manizha’s cousin was killed by the Taliban on July 19. The family believes it was because he had been a Kabul police officer. They send whatever money they can to their extended family in Afghanistan. They pore over YouTube and Instagram videos of people in Afghanistan pushing and shoving for food. “We feel so upset and sad,” Edris said.

And just as they started to carve out a foothold for themselves, the family had to uproot themselves once again when the lease on the townhouse ran out and could not be renewed. It took Alyas weeks to find a new place; the family’s minimal credit history made the search especially hard. When they move this month, they will have to start over again in another house that is not a home. It’s all part of relearning how to live their lives from scratch. “We come here like a new baby born,” Alyas said.

This experience is not atypical for today’s immigrants, said Robin Cohen, author of “Global Diasporas” and emeritus professor at Oxford University. The migration concept of laying down roots signified a physical connection between territory and identity that has loosened in our modern connected world. “We are all now digitally connected,” he said. “We are routed rather than rooted.”

Although preoccupied by worries of family left behind and haunted by a life that ended in August 2021, the Tajik family is determined to build a new life in Nashville. Each family member has specific hopes: Abdul Latif would like to open a grocery store. Alyas dreams of completing his education. Khoshi would like to be a dentist, and Edris wants to be a soccer star. And Manizha has other plans beyond learning English and resuming her medical career.

“After that, I want to save money to buy a home,” she said. “The important thing is home.”

Building a New Life in an Unlikely Migrant Destination