April 5, 2022 // Diocese

Afghan refugee families find welcome in Fort Wayne

One family group had a relatively easy time getting to the Kabul airport for their evacuation flight out of Afghanistan last August. The other rode to freedom on the last U.S. plane leaving the chaotic scene at the airport.

All are happy to be in Fort Wayne, where they have felt welcome and have received help from Catholic Charities and other groups to start building a new life.

The families spoke with a writer for Today’s Catholic with help from Nasreen Yousufi and Mari Muradi, Afghanistan natives who settled in Fort Wayne in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Both women now work as interpreters with the Catholic Charities organization serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Yousufi and Muradi speak both Dari and Pashto, the two main languages used in Afghanistan.

The Shirzai family flew out of Afghanistan on the last U.S. plane to leave the country, said Munawar Shirzai, 29. With him were his wife, Jamilla, 25, and their children, Shoghla, 5 1/2, Kalson, 4 1/2, Mohammad, 2 1/2, and Yusuf, 1.

Photos by Kevin Kilbane
The Shirzai family is among the Afghan refugee families being resettled in Fort Wayne by the Catholic Charities office serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Family members are parents, Jamilla, left, and Munawar, and their children, from left, Yusuf, Mohammad, Shoghla and Kalson.

The family lived in Paktika Province in southern Afghanistan, said Munawar, who knows English. He began working with the U.S. government there in 2007 while still a teenager. He can’t discuss details about the work he did, but he continued assisting the U.S. government all through the refugee evacuation in August.

The United States military evacuated nearly 125,000 Afghanistan residents, which included individuals and members of those individuals’ families who could have faced death or retaliation by the Taliban. 

“We had a normal life, and then the Taliban came,” Munawar said. “Then we left the situation because the situation was getting bad because the Taliban were getting everywhere.

“When the Taliban took power, my life was in danger,” he added. “I left my house and everything back there and came here.”

Afghan refugees Mohammad Farahmand, left, and his brother, Ahmad, have started building new lives in Fort Wayne after being resettled here with help from the Catholic Charities office serving the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Both now have jobs and have received Indiana driver’s permits as they work toward obtaining a driver’s license. However, they remain concerned for the safety of family members still in Afghanistan.

Brothers Mohammad Farahmand, 32, and Ahmad Farahmand, 27, also left Afghanistan for their safety.

Mohammad, who evacuated with his wife, had worked for two years as an attorney and seven years as a prosecutor. He also had served as a mediator in talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Ahmad, who had to leave his wife and three children in Afghanistan, had served in the Afghan Army for three years and also worked as a driver for an Afghan government official.

They are part of a big family group who lived in Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan. Their father was the chief of their community, which Mohammad said lost about 50 people while they fought against the Taliban. One of their uncles was killed, and a cousin was beheaded.

“I have really bad memories over there,” he said.

“I’m thinking if me and my brother, if we would be in Afghanistan, we may not be alive,” Mohammad said. “We will always be appreciative of the American Army for saving our lives.”

They worry about their family members still in Afghanistan. That includes Ahmad’s wife and children, their parents, two brothers and two younger sisters, who were in 11th grade and college when the Taliban took over. The Taliban recently announced young women no longer can attend school beyond the sixth grade.

Their family members are not living in one place, but moving from one location to another every few days to protect their safety, the brothers said. Ahmad’s wife and children, ages 6, 4 and 7 months, are with his parents.

“My mom and dad, they are ok, but not really,” Mohammad said. They miss their sons. “Whenever we talk to them, they are crying,” he said.

Their father also is feeling sick because it is winter in Afghanistan, and the places they have been staying aren’t warm, he added.

Munawar Shirzai said his parents also remain in Afghanistan but seem to be doing ok. After the Taliban took control in August, they came to his parents’ home and threw his father in jail for three days to question him about the whereabouts of his sons, but then released him. 

Munawar said he and two of his brothers worked with the U.S. government. His brothers also left during the evacuation. One brother was resettled in Fort Wayne and the other in Oklahoma.

After leaving their homeland, the Shirzais and the Farahmands all eventually landed in Washington, D.C. From there, they moved to one of the temporary camps the U.S. government set up at several military bases around the country. 

The Shirzais were housed for 45 days at Fort Pickett in Virginia before arriving late last year in Fort Wayne, Munawar said. The Farahmands stayed temporarily at Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana before being approved last fall to join a friend already living in Fort Wayne.

The Shirzais didn’t worry about where they would be resettled, Munawar said. “I am happy to start a normal life,” he added.

Catholic Charities has been a huge help, Munawar said. 

The agency initially housed the Shirzais in a hotel, but quickly found them a rental house. Catholic Charities assists them with managing their resettlement funds so they can pay rent and utilities while they get established in Fort Wayne.

The aid that Catholic Charities provides is personal, as staff members took the Shirzais to enroll oldest daughter Shoghla in kindergarten. Munawar and Jamilla worried about how she would adjust, but she loves it, he said.

Staff also helped Munawar apply for and obtain his Indiana driver’s license and buy a car. He recently earned his Commercial Driver’s License and began searching for a job driving a truck.

Two volunteers from Catholic Charities come to their house regularly to help Jamilla learn English, he said. Volunteers also take the family to medical appointments and other needs.

The local Islamic community has also been very welcoming to the new Afghan families, said Munawar, whose family practices the Islamic faith. Islamic community members have provided the Shirzais with food, clothing and a lot of volunteer help.

“I’m so happy since I got to Fort Wayne,” he noted.

“My goal is to work to help our kids get their education here, and when they get done, I want to continue my education,” said Munawar, who would like to attend a U.S. military academy.

The Farahmands also have been happy with Fort Wayne. People seem nice, and the area’s seasonal climate reminds them of the weather where they lived in Afghanistan.

“We are trying to learn English to improve ourselves,” Mohammad said. The brothers and Mohammad’s wife all work at a local manufacturer.

They currently live at Catholic Charities’ Cabrini Center, a former nursing home that Catholic Charities renovated, largely with volunteer help, to house and serve Afghan refugees. The Farahmands hope to move soon to an apartment or rental home, Mohammad said.

Along with helping them find their jobs, Catholic Charities gets them to medical appointments and anywhere else they need to go. 

Working toward greater independence and self-reliance has motivated the brothers to receive their Indiana driver’s permits, and Ahmad may get his license soon, as well. They each hope to eventually purchase a car.

Someday, Mohammad hopes to study for a career in information technology.

Ahmad plans to work, save money and put education on hold while he focuses on one goal:

“I’m trying to find a way to get my family here,” he said. “That is more important to me. My kids are not safe.” 

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