Shah and her four children were well-hidden. Sitting inside stacks of crates with just a small hole to let in air, she hoped they would make it. The family of five was forced to sneak into their seventh country in eleven years and all they could do was pray their seventh country would be the right one.
At that moment, Shah probably didn’t even know Spokane, Washington existed. If someone had told her that her four boys would all be 4.0 students or that she would one day be an American citizen, she might have assumed they were lying, crazy, or both.
When Shah tells her family’s story, she tears up a little bit, reminded both of where she’s been, the sacrifices she’s made, and where she is now. Her son, there to translate when Shah’s English falters, smiles and fills in gaps, likely just as impressed with his mother as everyone who knows her.
“We’re thankful to be in Spokane,” Aziz says. “I love it here.”
In 2001, Shah and Aziz (who was a two-year-old at the time) fled the Taliban, crossing the mountainous border together from Afghanistan to Pakistan. They had no travel documents, but tried to make it work. Shah worked small jobs until their lives were threatened again, this time for being an Afghan in Pakistan. The small family took off, heading to China. Shah hitch-hiked across the border, just looking for a place to raise Aziz and her newborn son.
China wasn’t any more fruitful than Pakistan and small family, now four in total, was deported back to Pakistan just two months after Shah birthed her third son. They fled Pakistan once again, this time making their way to Iran, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Each time, the small family seemed to find stability before fleeing government persecution to their new, temporary home.
In Uzbekistan, Shah met a woman who offered to smuggle the family into Russia, tucked in between crates full of fruits and vegetables. Shah’s husband, who had left the family, was in Russia and she agreed, hoping the father of her children could help them.
He didn’t. Shah was forced to split a 100 square foot Moscow apartment with another Afgani refugee family. She picked up leftover food from the market to feed her kids and worked 12 hour days to enroll them in school.
Initially, Shah was denied refugee status because she was still legally married to her abusive husband. After a divorce, and with the help of an American woman at a local human rights organization, she was finally cleared to come to the United States. Shah and her four sons came here through World Relief Spokane in July of 2012.
The family’s struggles weren’t completely resolved when they came to Spokane, but for the first time they had a place to solve their problems. Their case manager enrolled the four children in school, their first stable learning environment. World Relief Spokane’s housing coordinator found them an affordable, safe home and helped the family furnish it with donations from the Spokane community. Shah enrolled in English classes and received medical services to help her overcome the toll that fleeing country after country took on her mental and physical health.
Now, five years later, the family’s situation barely resembles where they were when they came in Spokane. All four boys are 4.0 students, and Aziz is applying for scholarships with the hopes of getting a Bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga or Whitworth. He will graduate from Mead High School in May.
Just two weeks ago, Shah became a United States citizen after taking weeks of citizenship classes at World Relief Spokane.
At the ceremony, the judge looked out at the newest Americans, smiled, and said, “you are what makes America great.”
We couldn’t agree more.
This story was written by World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant, Andrew Goodwin.