From the window of his fourth-floor apartment near downtown Orlando, the man who calls himself “MZ” has an unobstructed view of his strange new world. In the middle of streets lined with oak trees and small quiet lakes, he begins again here at 35 years old.
Everything he worked for in his previous life, half of his extended family and all of his friends are 7,600 miles away.
“But I feel quite comfortable here,” Mohebullah Zyarmal said one recent afternoon. “I don’t hear the sound of bullets or the sound of bombs in [the] nine months since I left Afghanistan. When I was there, every day I hear these sounds, but since I came here, it’s quiet. It is [a] good difference.
Zyarmal – serious, polite, eager to prove himself – is a former translator and cultural adviser to the US Marine Corps in his native country. When US troops withdrew last August, he, his wife, 3-month-old daughter and three brothers fled to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, pleading to flee as the city fell to the Taliban.
If he had stayed, he would have been hunted down and killed.
Although he has a master’s degree in horticulture and a decade of service with the Americans in military and intelligence operations, he now works in the Community Maintenance Department in Westminster, Florida – one of 90 Afghan refugees sponsored by the not-for-profit, faith-based organization, which operates a range of retirement communities across the state.
Westminster helped him find an apartment, paid bail, co-signed his lease, brought him furniture, kitchen utensils and linens, drove him to the Social Security Administration office, and helped open a bank account. Some of the elderly residents, former teachers, have organized ESL classes that he and other refugees can attend four days a week.
“At the end of the first year, they will have a job reference, credit reference, landlord reference and training,” says Mary Klein, human resources manager for Westminster Communities. “It’s a victory for us, because we needed [employees]. And it’s a victory for Afghans because they really have a boost to rebuild their lives in the United States.
Westminster made it as convenient as possible.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Zyarmal was 14 when America and its allies invaded his country, sparking a nearly 20-year war. As the eldest son of a shepherd and a farmer, he walked three hours to school each morning, then spent his afternoons tending cattle and carrying firewood for cooking.
By the time he graduated from high school and left for Kandahar University, his father was ill and he had to work to support himself while earning a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree.
“I needed to be educated to keep my hopes alive,” he says. Jobs were so scarce that a single opening would attract 1,000 applicants. Despite his studies in horticulture, he only worked in the field briefly.
Instead, a stint at a language institute led to a position as a translator with the Marines, a position he held from 2011 to 2013. He then began working for the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, conducting surveillance operations on the Taliban. and al-Qaeda.
Trained and supported by US advisers, Zyarmal said he led a team that arrested more than 7,500 terrorists, murderers, kidnappers and insurgents in seven years.
“When I go to work in the morning, I don’t know if I’m going home,” he says of that time.
But when the United States began withdrawing its troops in 2020, Zyarmal feared the worst. The Taliban had already grown in strength, and by the summer of 2021 their forces were advancing rapidly.
On August 15, the day Kabul fell, he brought his family to the gates of the airport.
“We leave everything behind,” he says. “My parents, they were left behind. My brother’s wife, his children – they were also left behind.
In a single 10-day period, more than 122,000 people were airlifted out of the country, including 82,000 to the United States.
Zyarmal and his family were flown to Qatar for a day, then to a Navy base in Italy for 15 days, then to Philadelphia and later to New Jersey, where they remained for four months. On January 7, they were airlifted to Bradenton, where Lutheran Services Florida helped them resettle and navigate the late Byzantine immigration process. Finally, Westminster offered them jobs and housing.
On February 26, they moved to Orlando. The men have all started working in Westminster, while Zyarmal’s wife Wahida, who speaks little English, stays home to look after the couple’s now one-year-old daughter. They don’t have a car.
They don’t know anyone here.
“Since we’ve been down here in Orlando, like no one knocks [on] our door,” says Zyarmal. “Like in Afghanistan, in our culture, we become so happy if someone knocks [on] our door, and we sit with them and share [a] history and chai sharing [tea].”
Until last week, Wahida Zyarmal was terrified of leaving the apartment, even to walk on the closed ground.
“I know they’ve been through a lot, especially staying on military bases,” says Lourdes Mesias, executive director of refugee and immigration services at Lutheran Services Florida, which has helped resettle 1,000 Afghans. throughout the state. “They came out of a trauma to [experience] another.”
It is nearly 6 p.m. when Zyarmal finishes his workday and sits down to have some tea and fruit. Her two-bedroom apartment, provided rent-free for 90 days, will cost her $1,800 a month after that – fairly affordable on her salary, but leaving little to send back to her parents, who are elderly and frail.
“I worry about them, whether they’re maybe kidnapped by someone or abused by someone,” he says. “Because the people I fought for love [a] decade… now they are in power.
The Taliban have already raided the family home twice and confiscated Zyarmal’s vehicle.
He hopes to get a second job to send more money to the family he left behind. And he hopes to find a professional position.
Klein, the human resources manager, understands.
“A lot of these people are highly trained professionals,” she says. “You know, they come as lawyers and engineers and [military intelligence] officers, and they end up like dishwashers.
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When she can, she looks for opportunities for them to progress. And while she had feared that the people of Westminster would not welcome Afghans and their Islamic faith, that cultural differences would prove too great, the opposite happened.
“It all happened so fast,” she says. “But our residents have embraced that, and the Afghans, to one person, have been so kind.”
Although money was tight, Zyarmal bought decorations and an abundance of special food for her daughter’s first birthday, walking 10 miles round trip to get groceries. Then he invited Klein to the party.
He can work in the United States for two years under his current immigration status, but if he gets the special visa he applied for, he will have a path to a green card, allowing him to live and work in the States. United permanently. .
He knows there is no turning back. And he hopes the U.S. military he faithfully served — and his government — won’t forget him, especially as a flood of Ukrainians seek refuge from another war.
“Our lives have ups and downs,” he says. “But we fell, and now we’re trying to get back up.”