Journalists Fatema and Nikbakht were forced to flee Afghanistan and resettle in Milwaukee with no friends or family nearby, unaware of the culture and with little guidance on how to navigate the city. As best friends and roommates, the two only had each other.
Mary Wurzburg has changed that. To support Afghan refugees in their adjustment to Milwaukee, Wurzburg, a member of Congregation Sinai, started a chavurah at her synagogue.
Working with Hanan Refugee Relief Group, a Milwaukee nonprofit, and around eight congregants, Wurzburg’s chavurah is assisting Fatema and Nikbakht, in their adjustment to the Milwaukee area. The women, in their mid-to-late 20s, came to the United States together after fleeing Afghanistan around six months ago. As journalists, they feared for their safety under Taliban rule and the Chronicle is withholding their last names for security purposes.
“Since I retired, I want to give back and help refugees because I saw the challenges that they face,” Wurzburg said.
The two women arrived in the United States in a military plane with no seating, food or water, with only one purse and the clothes they were wearing. Before arriving in Milwaukee, they stayed together in a camp in Texas for four months. They lived in one room with 15 other women.
“The room was busy, the room was dirty, and it was so hard. We couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study,” Nikbakht said. The women describe being depressed and confused during their stay in the camp, and with spotty internet, they couldn’t let their family in Afghanistan know they were safe.
Upon arriving in Milwaukee, the women were placed in a hotel for 15 days, not being able to leave without the assistance of their case manager, as they were not shown around the city or how to navigate the bus system.
The goal of the chavurah is to make these women feel more comfortable in Milwaukee. “I have taken them grocery shopping. We have brought them some books, some furniture. Two other women took them and gave them a tour of Milwaukee,” Wurzburg said. “They hadn’t been out of their apartment. It’s companionship. I was there on Saturday and just spent a lot of time talking, and having them show me pictures, and building a relationship.”
Wurzburg felt compelled to start this chavurah to help refugees who might not have otherwise had the proper assistance. “Single people, because their needs aren’t the same as a family, get left behind,” said Wurzburg.
”They are so kind, so good, so helpful,” Nikbakht said about the chavurah. Prior to being connected with the chavurah through Hanan, the two women only had each other in Milwaukee.
”We were so happy in Afghanistan. It’s not good for me now,” said Nikbakht. “We are starting at zero. In Afghanistan, we graduated and were working, and now we don’t know about the culture in America and language. It’s so bad for me.” Back in Afghanistan, Nikbakht worked as a reporter and Fatema created programs on social issues for television.
Wurzburg hopes to help the two women with employment down the road. They have been offered employment in a factory, which Wurzburg feels is not suitable for their level of education.
“At first we want to get a job and continue our education,” said Nikbakht. Fatema hopes to continue to write and is currently working on a piece about her experience fleeing Afghanistan.
“I hope to support more families and more people, because there is such a need,” Wurzburg said. “And I am also gaining from it. I am learning about their country, getting to know two delightful women, and they need our guidance.”
She encourages community members to get involved with organizations like Wisconsin Jews for Refugees or through starting programs at their local synagogue. It doesn’t take much to help. Wurzburg said, “When you have nothing, you are happy with anything.”