Two owls find a way to help Afghan people at Philadelphia airport

At the end of August, the mayor’s office and the office of immigrant affairs in Philadelphia asked the office of international affairs in Temple to issue a call for volunteer interpreters. The city needed native speakers of Dari, Urdu, Pashto and Farsi at the Philadelphia International Airport to help evacuees from Afghanistan fleeing the violence that had erupted in their country. The Philadelphia airport was the second chosen by the White House to receive the refugees.

Temple Now spoke with two members of our community who are eager to help newly arrived Afghans.

Ouahmah Osman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Klein College of Media and Communication. His areas of expertise are global media, media and reporting in conflict zones; feminist media ethnography and women’s rights; and race / ethnic minorities / immigrant representation in the United States and abroad. Osman used both Dari (a dialect of Persian) and Pashto when he volunteered.

Sepehr Pirasteh is a doctoral student in musical composition in the second year at Temple. Originally from Iran, he studied at Tehran University of the Arts before moving to the United States in 2017 to earn his Masters in Conducting and Composition at Central Michigan University. Pirasteh spoke to refugees in Farsi.

Temple Now: Why did you want to volunteer?
Wazhmah Osman: I know what it’s like to be a refugee. My mother, siblings and I came to the United States during the first wave of Afghan refugees during the Cold War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan. We had to give up everything, including my father. It took us four years to get US visas, so we stayed in a refugee camp in Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan.
When I heard about the opportunity to help at the airport, I contacted my cousin and a friend of ours [to tell them about it] because we had so much sadness and anxiety about what was going on; volunteering seemed to be a very good way to channel it.

Sepehr Pirasteh: Culturally, Afghans and Iranians are very close and we have a lot of common history with each other. When I saw the news, I was really sad to see what was happening to the Afghan people. Iran has a lot of Afghan immigrants. I felt very close to this situation and wanted to be there for them and be as helpful as possible.

TN: How was it at the airport?
OE: The airport scene was organized chaos. There were different stations set up for all the things the refugees would need to do. The airport organizers put everyone at ease by being culturally sensitive, even down to the small details like the use of the bathroom. In Muslim countries, many people use what is called a lot to wash after using the toilet. In urban areas, people have bidets. They brought lots of watering cans and put up pictures to show how to use the toilet, as some of the refugees in rural areas may not have access to modern plumbing and toilets.

SP: There were a lot of amazing people helping out at the airport. Many Afghans had traveled from other places to be there and I saw other Iranian students. I think it was a very important time for all of us to be there and help each other.

Boyer Sepehr Pirasteh’s doctoral student feels close to this situation, in part because Afghans and Iranians have a lot of common history. (Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg)

TN: How were the Afghans when they got to the airport?
OE: Most of them came with nothing but shopping bags. They were in terrible shape, everyone was very malnourished. Women in their late teens or early twenties looked much, much older. It is the impact of the war and the difficult living conditions. They were very upset and worried. Many of the refugees I spoke to during the translation were asking me, “What’s going to happen to us?” Will they provide support? Are we going to have jobs? We couldn’t answer their questions beyond knowing that they would be taken to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

SP: Something I think is important to say is that many of them were fluent in English. Many had worked with the US military. I saw a lot of educated people, some of them were engineering students, some of them were medical students.

TN: What did you do at the airport?
SP: Interpreters had to wait in a certain area of ​​the airport where evacuees were coming so that we could help them with their COVID-19 test and with immigration documents. Even though I didn’t need to do any translation, I was so happy to be able to talk to them and ask them how they were feeling. In the meantime, they rested a bit, and then we had personal conversations in Farsi.

TN: What do you think is the most important thing people need to understand about refugees?
OE: I always say that nobody wants to become a refugee, nobody wants to leave their country of origin and go somewhere where everything is unknown and where they do not know the language. Things have to really go wrong for people to get to this point.

TN: What was your most positive feedback from the experience?
SP: I was just happy to be able to give some hope. I felt this need to be there. I can speak the language, therefore, I have to be as supportive as possible.

OE: One thing that was really impressive was the generosity of the Americans. There were piles and piles of disposable diapers, blankets, clothes and all kinds of things that people might need. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

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