The phone rings and a caseworker takes the call. It’s Marwa (not her real name), whose husband threatened her again. He has the money, connections and enough control over Marwa to strip her of all that’s familiar in this unfamiliar land. After suffering years of abuse, both in Virginia, her new home, and Afghanistan, the place of her birth, she’s had enough. She wants a divorce. It’s a deeper leap into the unknown, a dark place full of fear, but nothing can be worse than the life she leads at present. The caseworker assures her that she has rights. That the law is on her side. And Women for Afghan Women (WAW) is there to help. Best of all, she’s not alone. The caseworker takes down pertinent information, then starts on her mission to free Marwa from her perilous situation.
This is only a moment in time for WAW’s busy Virginia Community Center (VACC), located in Alexandria, VA. Founded in March 2022, the VACC handles many immigration and social service cases for its clients. The interim program director and mental health counselor oversees the activity that takes place. She is joined by her colleagues: two caseworkers; an education coordinator, an attorney, a paralegal and an administrative assistant. Their challenges are many, but their resolve is clear: to offer aid to the Afghan community, most of whom are immigrants, and connect them to the services and support they need to establish their lives in their new home.
“Each day presents a new challenge,” says the interim program director, “but the VACC’s staff members do whatever they can to help clients, however we can. Our caseworkers do phenomenal work, and our staff attorney and paralegal tirelessly advocate for our immigrant clients.”
One of the challenges VACC faces is domestic violence. Caseworkers work hard, long hours, often over evenings and weekends, to come to their clients’ aid. Many women feel trapped in their homes, depressed and hopeless, not knowing that they have rights and that all forms of domestic violence are illegal in the United States. Back in Afghanistan, domestic abuse is often considered a family matter to be resolved within it. Here, the caseworkers call lawyers to see if they’ll take on a pro bono domestic violence case. They’ll call shelters and other places that will provide safe haven for survivors. They will contact agencies that will help women with a myriad of issues that surround domestic violence cases, and come up with positive solutions that will ensure their safe removal and ultimate divorce from their abusive husbands. But most importantly, the caseworkers will treat their clients with kindness, respect and compassion. They’ll make sure their clients know they aren’t alone. That WAW is here for them, no matter what.
Another challenge is immigration advocacy. Many Afghan clients come to the United States not only as refugees, but seeking asylum, desperate to leave their homeland amid deteriorating conditions as the de facto Taliban government strip them of their employment and rights. Unable to wait for official entry papers into the United States, many Afghan refugees take the long and dangerous route through the Darién Gap, a treacherous route through the isthmus of Panama, a jungle rife with thieves, terrorists, pestilence and rugged terrain. Coming to the southern border of the United States is an act of desperation and bravery. Increasingly, it has become more difficult for Afghan refugees who immigrated through that route to seek asylum.
WAW’s VACC attorney and paralegal meet with Afghan refugees to help them transition from asylum seekers to permanent residents of the United States. Through one-on-one counseling, they consult with clients on advising them of their rights, filling out the proper forms, preparing them for court dates and more, all without charge.
To further an Afghan immigrant’s journey into settling here, VACC also offers such important classes as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). It’s an important step for independence, because understanding English will allow clients to better navigate their way through their new lives. The education coordinator ensures that all who attend ESOL classes will succeed in learning how to become proficient. Often the women are illiterate in Dari or Pashto, the main languages of Afghanistan. Learning English can be liberating, especially for survivors of domestic violence. It’s one tool they’re given to allow them to establish a better life.
But most of all, any of the staff at the VACC will tell you that WAW is here to provide life-changing services, education, and vocational training for clients. Any client that comes to WAW is heard and respected, is helped in any way possible, and will leave feeling positive, because no one leaves empty handed. All services are rendered free of charge, and caseworkers ensure that they are there, no matter what, as a refuge for refugees.
Blog written by Gretchen Weerheim, Women for Afghan Women
Photo provided by WAW staff