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From Mahzar to the Bay: Making a Difference in Newcomer's Lives

Sodaba’s family left their hometown of Mahzar-i-Sharif and first arrived in Virginia before resettling to the South Bay in December 2021. Needing to build a new life from scratch, the difficult realities of the Bay Area’s soaring rents, record high inflation, and housing insecurity only created barriers. The challenges faced by Sodaba have been highlighted in recent media coverage, including CNN.


Behind the scenes, volunteers with The 5ive Pillars Organization have provided vital assistance to locally resettled refugees like Sodaba. Left with little guidance and impending financial obligations, Sodaba built a close relationship with our volunteers Rabia Safee and Fatima Mosammem, who come from Afghan backgrounds and witnessed an urgent need in their community during the Kabul evacuation in August 2021.


Being forced to navigate a complicated bureaucracy for critical government services like obtaining a driver’s license and getting medical appointments for her and her asthmatic mother began to take a heavy mental toll on Sodaba. That’s when Rabia and Fatima stepped up to fill the gaps. Going above and beyond what is customary for a resettlement organization’s role, Rabia and Fatima worked long hours outside of their day job and life responsibilities to bring some relief to Sodaba and her mother.


“We taught her how to use public transportation systems and that’s what helped get her wings”, says Rabia. After teaching her how to use public transportation, Rabia was able to mentor Sodaba through the job application process and within weeks, Sodaba secured a job at a local Burlington Coat Factory. The odds were stacked against Sodaba, with many employers refusing to hire refugees who do not have permanent home addresses, even if they are living in hotel housing, or are unable to speak English. Despite those odds, a job opportunity arose and Sodaba began to see a bit of financial reassurance.


However, finding public transportation early enough to make it to Sodaba’s 5:30am shift proved difficult since the Bay Area’s public transportation system is not a 24/7 system. Everyday, Rabia would drive Sodaba to her stocker shift at 5:30am. “I knew if I didn’t take her to work, she had no way there. This was the only place willing to give her an opportunity, so if it meant waking up at 4am to drive to San Jose and pick her up for her morning shift then were going to do it,” Rabia said.


The 5ive Pillars Organization bears witness to many cases of refugees in hotels awaiting permanent housing. Despite public assistance such as Cash Aid, this assistance is limited and does not account for the notorious high cost of living across the San Francisco Bay Area. Silicon Valley is no exception for many refugee families living in San Jose hotels. This was the exact case for Sodaba, who’s limited Cash Aid just was not enough for California’s cost of living.


Leaving the temporary hotel was a high priority for Sodaba and her mother. Thanks to the hard work of Rabia and Fatima, they were able to secure a unit in Union City, CA.


While housing and employment are the top priorities in resettlement, there are other refugee needs that are often overlooked. This is where Rabia and Fatima ensured that Sodaba’s resettlement went beyond that of finding a job and securing a house. Mentorship played a major role in ensuring a transition to California life.


Rabia took Sodaba grocery shopping one day to learn about the ways to select and purchase food items that can often be overwhelming without knowledge of US metrics and currency. Rabia and Fatima taught Sodaba how to understand pounds, ounces, pints, dollars; things many Americans view as mundane activities, but often an anxiety-inducing experience for newcomers.


“While I was a bit surprised to see Sodaba pick groceries without comparing prices, I realized that she was never taught to do so given the limitations back home,” Rabia said.


Thanks to Rabia and Fatima’s dedication, Sodaba and her mother have been lifted from temporary hotel housing and now live in a more secure housing unit in Union City. Though many challenges remain, resettlement through acts of kindness can result in a renewed empowerment for refugees to feel a sense of belonging in their communities.