A group of ladies gathers in a basement classroom. They gaze at each other a bit nervously, small smiles creeping on their faces. They are all new to this country, yet something about this gathering makes them feel more at home. For these are no ordinary ladies. These are former refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan. They are also seniors, often the most overlooked group of people who arrive in our nation.
Seniors have a particularly tough time immigrating to the United States because they are so entrenched in their former culture. They tend to be more isolated, not venturing out of their homes quite as often as they might, for all sorts of reasons. English isn’t often spoken or understood, hindering their ability to communicate with their new neighbors. Family members are working or in school, leaving these women with no one to translate or guide them to destinations. Social circles are small or nonexistent. They don’t seem to have much of an opportunity to weave themselves into society as younger folk do.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW) reaches out to these women, extending greetings with not only a smile, but in their own language. WAW created the Senior Women’s Circle program in 2019 in response to the needs identified by older immigrants. It meets regularly at WAW’s New York Community Center (NYCC) from July to December, when weather isn’t too much of a hazard. This program was designed to offer Afghan senior immigrant women the opportunity to explore the city with those who speak their language, address issues of importance to them, while building a sense of community.
Led by members of WAW’s NYCC program staff, these women gather together to take advantage of New York City’s cultural landscape. There’s always something different to explore. One month, it might be the Bronx Zoo. Another time, they might have a music lesson, or even try their hand at juggling. Yoga, arts and crafts, and sessions that focus on mental and physical health are also on the agenda. These activities are all created with one purpose in mind: to give isolated and traumatized senior Afghan women comprehensive social support and the mental and physical care they require to recover and rebuild their lives in a land far from their home.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these sessions is the ability to communicate in the participants’ native languages, Pashto and Dari. It can be emotionally difficult for a newcomer to express themselves without fear of judgment. Seniors speak freely here, connecting with their peers on all sorts of issues they have endured. The trauma of escaping the Taliban, finding themselves strangers in a new land, adjusting to a new culture, feeling homesick, and worrying about what the future may bring are all subjects for discussion.
Many seniors, and including their loved ones affected by the ongoing crises in Afghanistan, experience mental health issues such as survivors’ guilt, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. This program ensures that older community members receive the care they need. WAW helps these women cope with their nightmarish experiences in a healthy and productive way. Because they are with others who share similar experiences, women take comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
Since January 2023, WAW has provided case management services to approximately 154 seniors. Services include applying for social security benefits, SNAP, document translation, help with making medical appointments, immigrant legal services and applying for citizenship. Case workers also reach out to the local Afghan community, informing imans at local mosques and businesses to spread awareness about these programs.
Best of all, these women have a second chance to build a meaningful and purposeful life in their new home. With the support of WAW and their new-found friends, senior Afghan newcomers have a reason to hope and smile.
Blog written by Gretchen Weerheim, Women for Afghan Women
Photos provided by WAW staff