Three tiny hands at a range of heights reached out for the traditional American greeting of a handshake and “Hello, how do you do?” The polite greeting came from children ages 22 months, 4 years old and 5 years old who just a few months earlier had lived in Afghanistan and spoke only Dari.
They are the children of Kazam and Shakofa, a married couple who moved from Afghanistan to Pittsburgh late last year with the help of Mark Smith. The East Millsboro man, who worked with Kazam, whom he calls Kasey, as a translator in Afghanistan, helped the family secure a special immigrant visa available to those who helped the U.S. and British armed forces.
Kazam worked as a translator for the U.S. military for six years, earning him a place on a Taliban hit list. He still has fear for his family living overseas, and asked that his last name not be used.
Because Kazam and his family feel safe in their new home in Pittsburgh, he said he is open to discuss his religious beliefs. His neighbors, he said, have been welcoming.
Perhaps that is because of the welcoming nature of Kazam and his wife.
“Hospitality is one of the main customs Afghanistan is known for,” Kazam, 31, said. “When a guest comes to your home, coming in is their decision, but going out is the host’s decision. That means we usually feed our guests.”
Laid out for recent visitors to their modest apartment was tray of nuts and dried fruits is accompanied by cups of tea.
The family came to the U.S. with only the three suitcases permitted on the flight from Afghanistan. Thrift stores and donations from Smith’s friends have yielded clothing, toys, furniture and housewares.
“I am more than happy to have ended up in Pittsburgh. I know that in other states there is not such a warm welcome to migrants, especially Muslims,” Kazam said. “I’m already making friends here.”
Neighbors from the Ukraine introduced the family to the neighborhood community center. Kazam has also joined the local library and the children love playing in a neighborhood park. There don’t seem to be any language barriers for children, especially when they are playing together.
One recent Saturday Kazam’s family was visited by another immigrant family from Iraq. Lunch ended up being a multi-course event for nine adults and five children. The children played and squabbled like children anywhere. The fact that two spoke Arabic, two spoke Dari and one barely spoke at all was irrelevant.
“For Afghanistan, this is small,” Kazam said. “When our families get together, there might be 30 people there.”
The crowded table was piled with dishes of fish, lamb and kofta, a beef dish, as well as rice and breads. A fresh fruit platter was brought out after the meal, along with a coconut custard provided by the Iraqi guests. Ginger tea flowed nonstop.
The family maintains Muslim dietary customs, making grocery shopping a challenge in order to find halal foods, those which comply with the dietary laws of the religion. Specialty shops both in the Strip District and in ethnic neighborhoods help in that regard.
Iraqis Adil and Hanadi and their children, who also came to Pittsburgh through the visa program, are helping Kazam and his wife. Like Kazam, Adil served as a military translator. Hanadi said the city’s white winter was a new venture for all of them.
“Back home in Iraq we don’t have the snow. I’m 35 years old, and I’d never seen snow. It’s beautiful,” Hanadi said. “I love to be here. It’s so quiet and safe. It’s such a good place for my kids’ education. … It’s a wonderful place. The people here respect other people.”
That only reinforces Kazam’s hope.
“I’m seeing a bright future for my family,” he said.