Safe from the Taliban, Afghan refugees start over in University Park
By Hunter Savery
Roman and Aimal Najmi are refugees who escaped the Taliban takeover of Kabul this past August. In Afghanistan, the couple were successful dentists who lectured at Kabul University. Now in University Park, they are safe from the Taliban but struggle to find appropriate work and afford an apartment.
Aimal said the couple’s overall anxiety started when they heard the U.S. was going to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Aimal worried that he would be targeted because of his ties to the U.S. He was a Fulbright Scholar and earned his master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts. The Taliban has a history of targeting Fulbright recipients because they are perceived as being pro-American, Aimal said.
The day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, Aug. 15, 2021, was also Aimal and Roman’s first wedding anniversary. Instead of celebrating, they were desperately trying to find a way out of their native city. They waited outside the airport for nine hours, while the Taliban violently pushed people back.
Fortunately, Aimal had previously obtained a Canadian visa; after finally getting through the crush of people at the airport, he and Roman were given the choice to come to Canada or the U.S. They chose the U.S. Once on the plane, a military flight bound for Kuwait, the couple was finally able to relax. Aimal recalled saying to Roman, “We can click a selfie here to remember this moment.”
Aimal and Roman’s journey took them to Germany, where they lived in tents on a U.S. military base for 12 days. Roman recalls that because they left Kabul in August and could only take one bag, they were unprepared for the cold.
The couple were then flown to the U.S. on Sept. 12, 2021, and waited at a military base in Indiana, Camp Atterbury, while their paperwork was processed. The Najmis spent two months in Indiana before being allowed to resettle in Maryland in November.
Aimal and Roman came to Maryland, at the invitation of Roman’s cousin Feroza Yari. Yari came to the U.S. in 2001 as a refugee from the first Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Yari now lives in West Hyattsville and works for the U.S. Department of Defense. She helped the couple find a room in a shared house in University Park.
University Park resident Donna Chacko, an author and a retired oncologist, met Roman and Yari at a Christmas craft fair in University Park. Deciding she wanted to help, Chacko posted a message to the University Park community’s email group inviting them to a virtual gathering to meet the couple.
Chacko said she was sure people would be interested in helping the Najmis, “knowing how many really good people live in University Park [who are] interested in the world.”
The virtual meeting between the couple and about 15 University Park neighbors began with introductions and brief presentations by Aimal on Afghanistan’s recent history. Attendees met Roman and Aimal, heard the couple’s history and learned what kinds of assistance they needed most. The group brainstormed about how to help the couple and connect them with job opportunities. University Park resident David Fosse even offered the couple a car he and his wife no longer needed.
“It’s really surprising how a little something could make a big difference for these people,” said Chacko.
While Roman and Aimal receive support in the form of food stamps from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee resettlement organization, they struggle to make ends meet, according to Roman. Most difficult of all, they are unable to work as dentists here without the necessary certification, even though they were lecturers at Kabul University.
“I think there are two major problems we have right now. One is our living situation; we want to move to an apartment so we can live there,” said Aimal. “And the other problem is we need jobs.”
Roman said that because the couple does not have children, they were unable to receive housing assistance from the IRC, which gives priority to families with children. They want to live in an apartment of their own.
Aimal and Roman hope that someone from the community will be able to help them find work in the dental field.
They both said they want to return to a safe Afghanistan some day when they can live without fear of persecution.