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A message for fellow refugees: 'Don't give up'

by Heather Rousseau

posted with permission from The Roanoke Times, June 27, 2024



Sona Rahmani lost everything when she fled her home in Afghanistan. As she builds a new life in Roanoke, she wants to remind fellow refugees to not just focus on work and making money, but to try to continue careers they left behind or start one anew.


The United Nations designates a World Refugee Day each June to recognize the resilience and hope among hardship of refugees and to celebrate diversity and richness that contribute to communities.


Woman sitting on couch
Sona Rahmani, 26, was an English teacher in Afghanistan. She fled her county in the fall of 2021 during the U.S. evacuation. With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, she could no longer teach. In Roanoke she works full time and attends college. In honor of World Refugee Day, which was last week, she encourages fellow refugees to continue to pursue their schooling and careers. HEATHER ROUSSEAU, The Roanoke Times


Rahmani, 26, taught English to young girls and college students in Afghanistan, she said, and feared for her future when the Taliban took control of her country, where women are no longer allowed to attend school past elementary grade level and the English language is no longer welcomed.


After the Taliban regained control in August 2021, Rahmani fled with thousands of others during the U.S. evacuation, leaving her career and family behind.


“There is nothing to do over there, like no jobs, nothing,” Rahmani said on June 20, this year’s observance of World Refugee Day. She said she sends her parents and three siblings who remain in Afghanistan money so they can survive without jobs.


“I always support my family and send them money over there for them. And that makes life hard for me as well here, because I have to pay for my college, I have to pay for my bills.”

Woman with Afghan breads and cookies for Eid al-Adha
Sona Rahmani, 26, was an English teacher in Afghanistan. She fled her county in the fall of 2021 during the U.S. evacuation. With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, she could no longer teach. In Roanoke she works full time and attends college. In honor of World Refugee Day, which was last week, she encourages fellow refugees to continue to pursue their schooling and careers. HEATHER ROUSSEAU, The Roanoke Times

Commonwealth Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that serves throughout Virginia, provides refugee and immigration services in Roanoke, Richmond and the Hampton Roads area and is an affiliate of the United States Refugee Admissions Program. CCC expects to serve more than 1,050 newcomers who are seeking safety and stability in the United States during a 12-month period that ends in September.


Rahmani, who came to Roanoke in the fall of 2021, wants to have a career, so functioning on little sleep she works full time as a dental assistant with Carilion Clinic Dental Care and attends Virginia Western Community College in evenings and online studying to become a dental hygienist.


Rahmani got her footing in Roanoke thanks to organizations such as CCC.


Traditional Afghan cookies
Homemade traditional Afghan cookies made by Sona Rahmani for an Eid al-Adha gathering. HEATHER ROUSSEAU, The Roanoke Times

When she first arrived in the U.S., Rahmani said she had toothache problems and could not find a dentist she could afford. CCC directed her to the Bradley Free Clinic, she said, where she was treated, and where she came up with the idea that she, too, could work in dentistry in America.


Because her teaching license from Afghanistan is not valid in the United States, she said, she was starting over with college courses anyway. The time seemed right for a new career.


The Hope Soccer Festival raises money for the Ndarugiriye Mariam Scholarship Fund that supports the educational needs of refugee youth in the Roanoke Valley by helping them pay for school. Longtime soccer coach Landon Moore, academy technical director of Virginia United, and owner of Soccer Shots of Southwest Virginia, started the festival. Moore said the festival has raised about $50,000 since 2012.


“The fund was started after a tragedy left a family of eight children without their parents,” Moore said. “We wanted to make sure that they would have financial support to achieve their academic goals. We also recognized a greater need for this type of support, so we did not want to limit resources to only those children as long as the fund was healthy enough for that to be viable.”


This year’s Hope Soccer Festival is Nov. 30 at a local high school that yet to be determined. Anyone is welcome to register to play in tournaments that last through the day.


Support is needed for refugees to achieve their academic goals because many do not have financial means to continue their education, according to Marnie Mills, a mission advancement associate for Commonwealth Catholic Charities.


“When refugees arrive here, they often have to pause long-term goals like education to focus on immediate needs such as housing and language learning,” Mills wrote in an email to The Roanoke Times. “While children are enrolled in school, young adults often get jobs to help their families and have to postpone their education.”

Mills said many of the agency’s clients are starting over with their schooling and careers.


This year almost $5,000 was awarded to eight recipients through the scholarship fund, according to CCC. Rahmani, one of those recipients, received $500.


Rahmani said the money from the fund was helpful and she also receives some Federal Student Aid, but her tuition and books are still very expensive and she has to pay out-of-state tuition since she is not yet a Virginia resident.


“It’s not easy,” she said. “I bet that not everybody can do it. It’s really hard, it’s really stressful. I have to think about my family. I have to think about myself. I have to think about all the payments, and I have to think about my job to do it best, and I have to think about my college to get a good score.”


Rahmani lives in an apartment in southwest Roanoke and looks forward to becoming a dental hygienist within the next few years. She said she remains optimistic from the lessons and support her father taught her and his desire for her to have a successful life. She said she has two sisters in the medical field in Afghanistan who cannot work because of Taliban restrictions.


She urges other refugees not to focus only on working but also on their education.

“They need money, they need work. But just don’t give up. I want them to go to college, to study hard, to make their future bright.”



 




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