Courtesy of Fereshteh Ganjavi
Nelofar Sorosh, 26, a doctor and the first Afghan woman to run a 250 kilometer ultra-marathon, fled Afghanistan with her family last October.
After more than seven months in Mexico, they crossed the border into the United States as humanitarian parolees. Sorosh then had a year to apply for asylum before his humanitarian parole status expired, while having to look for a job, learn English and get his driver’s license.
In September, Sorosh joined the Afghan Women’s Circle, an initiative led by Elena’s Light, a New Haven-based refugee education nonprofit, and the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration. On Sunday, Sorosh and 14 other Afghan refugee women graduated from the program and began their next six-month journey with individual mentors.
“I feel ready and excited after the program to explore the new environment,” Sorosh said.
Sorosh joined the program hoping it would support her as she looked for ways to maintain her passion for running and her career as a doctor in the United States. Designed as a program of five sessions every two weeks, the 90-minute support group serves as a safe and confidential space for conversations about personal growth and cultural transition for Afghan women new to the United States.
The Afghan Women’s Circle, which launched in September, held its meetings in Westchester, New York, and recruited refugee women who were resettled in adjacent counties. After graduation, each woman will be paired with a female mentor for six months who will continue to help them navigate life in the United States.
Sorosh told the News that Afghan Women’s Circle helped her connect with people who had been through her situation and had more lived experience in the United States. She added that she appreciated being able to speak to others in her native language.
Afghan refugee women frequently face gender discrimination and lack resources to overcome language and cultural barriers, according to a joint statement by WJCI and Elena’s Light. The Afghan Women’s Circle was designed to help them learn about the opportunities available to them and their families, while providing them with companionship, mentorship, counseling, psychological support, and language and literary education. .
“We really want to bring this program back to New Haven,” said Fereshteh Ganjavi, founder of Elena’s Light. “We want to help these women be ready to find a job and start a new life here.”
Bringing the initiative back to New Haven
Ganjavi, Schaffer and Jorawar said they hope to bring that program back to New Haven, where Elena’s Light resettled hundreds of refugees last year.
Ganjavi said she plans to launch a similar program in New Haven in January next year, with a greater emphasis on vocational training. The program will still offer five sessions over 10 weeks and will be taught in Pashto and Dari, the official and most widely spoken languages in Afghanistan.
Given the larger Afghan refugee population in New Haven, Ganjavi said she hopes to keep class sizes small at 15 students to provide enough individual attention, but will repeat the program more often after that.
Jorawar calls this inaugural in-person program “groundbreaking” compared to other free online courses offered by Elena’s Light on English language learning, driving test preparation and health. Going forward, she and Schaffer hope that next time the Afghan Women’s Circle program will have more sessions and include even more topics, such as food and nutrition.
Gain strength and build trust
Holly Rosen Fink, the president of the WJCI, recruited refugee women to participate and invited Elena’s Light to design and teach the program. Having worked on refugee resettlement for years, she described the collaboration as a dream come true for her.
Ganjavi said the goal is to provide participants with tools to help them transition and adjust to the cultural bridge of American life. Program topics include motherhood, language acquisition, employment, socialization, cultural competency, women’s health, financial literacy, the driver’s license application process, and women’s rights.
Two Elena’s Light staff members, Director of Program Development Varsha Jorawar and Director of Health Rachel Schaffer, are the main instructors of the program.
Schaffer described the Afghan Women’s Circle as a process of building trust and team learning. She said that at the first session, the women were hesitant about the information provided by the instructors, but they gradually became more enthusiastic and started taking pictures of the presentation slides.
“It’s like entering a new school. … It’s kind of like a five-week school, so it can be a lot at once,” Schaffer said. “I think we did a good job of making them feel comfortable and creating a community and really building trust.”
Over the five sessions, Schaffer said he observed that the women began to feel more comfortable talking and asking questions about how to handle situations in their lives.
Jorawar said that sometimes women might feel uncomfortable practicing new things, such as talking about their autonomy and personal strengths during a self-affirmation activity where they had to say out loud: “ I am strong”, “I am kind”. and “I can do whatever I think. “
However, Jorawar said, “They all did.”
“I think the hardest part here being in the United States [is that] they come from a country where they usually don’t make it, and they usually don’t feel seen and heard,” Jorawar said. “But when they move to the United States, they have a chance to be an individual and have their strengths. I think that’s what they should know and keep it with them throughout their stay in the United States.
Ongoing support system
After retiring from her job at IBM after 47 years, Lilian Wu joined the Circle of Afghan Women as a mentor. As an immigrant from Beijing who moved to Hong Kong, then Taiwan and finally the United States, Wu said it was a perfect opportunity for her to give back to the community.
“I feel like I understand how scary it is to be in a country where it’s fun when you’re ready to learn, but it’s so sad to leave your culture.” says Wu. “It’s wonderful to be able to engage with a new culture, but there’s a sadness that has to be dealt with.”
At Sunday’s graduation lunch, Wu and her mentee Sorosh had begun thinking about how she could continue her medical practice in the United States and researching available online resources for her to learn English.
According to Ganjavi, the mentors in the Afghan women’s circle receive a two-hour cultural training to better understand the Afghan culture from which these women come. They’ll help them set goals — whether it’s learning English, finding a job, or getting a driver’s license — and help them achieve them over the next six months.
After the mentorship, the women will be offered free classes at Elena’s Light for another six months, such as ESL and mental health classes.
Elena’s Light was founded in 2017.