NEW YORK–Tucked away in an unassuming house on an unassuming block in the unassuming Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, something humble and grand is happening. A dozen women of various ages, most of them in hijabs, sit in small groups, talking about going to the doctor. For most of them, English is not their first language. The conversations are sometimes halting. Ease does not prevail. Yet the very existence of these meetings is something of a miracle, and they are the first steps in helping a group of women–all of them Afghan immigrants–make better lives in the United States.
The gathering is a weekly language and life skills class offered by Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a nonprofit organization that works for women’s rights in both New York and Afghanistan. WAW was founded in 2001, several months before 9/11, and the organization operates over 30 facilities in 10 different provinces in Afghanistan. Its center in New York, however, is the only place in the area dedicated to helping women from Afghanistan.
These women face a unique set of challenges when they come to the US, as Naheed Bahram, WAW’s program director in New York, describes. “Where we are located,” she says, “the community is very conservative.” Many of the Afghan women in New York come “from families that the girls weren’t allowed to go to school. So it’s a little bit challenging for a woman to come here. They do not have anyone to talk with, to share with. You’re also being isolated because of not understanding the culture, not understanding the religion, and not understanding the language.”
WAW’s New York outpost, like its counterparts in Afghanistan, is a sort of safe house–a place where women can meet, talk, learn, and get counseling for a variety of issues. Naheed ticks off a list of services: “We also have to provide domestic violence counseling, parenting, health care, and hygiene.”
At the center, Jessica Wright, WAW’s New York administrative coordinator, says, “Women are learning anything from how to read and write for the first time, to how to be prepared for a citizenship interview. While we see many difficult issues coming through our doors, this is still a beautiful place.”
Because the WAW house is located in the heart of New York’s largest Afghan community, many women are able to walk to the center. Sometimes, because of their home situations, they need to do so privately and discreetly. City social service agencies will also refer cases involving Afghan women to WAW, since the organization is uniquely qualified to understand and help these women.
Naheed is a living testament to WAW’s work. She came to the organization shortly after arriving in the US from Afghanistan when she was 25, in 2006, and found in WAW a crucial bridge between the two countries. “To me, Women for Afghan Women was a home away from home, when I first came as an immigrant,” she says. “It was a place where I found myself, and I felt what it was to be an Afghan woman in a different country.”
Naheed measures success not just in the number of women the organization helps, but in the quality of that help. “If I see one woman saying that this organization transformed her life,” she adds, “that’s a success to me.”
Want to Get Involved?
Women For Afghan Women is a women’s human rights organization based in Kabul and New York. We were founded in April, 2001, six months before 9/11, and since then have advocated for the rights of Afghan women and built programming to secure, protect and advance Afghan women’s human rights in New York and across Afghanistan.
Visit http://www.womenforafghanwomen.org for information on how to volunteer or donate to support Women for Afghan Women’s ongoing work in the US and Afghanistan.