Nabila’s journey, part III: Starting from scratch

Nabila Painda’s children (L-R) Malika Sama, Malika Somaia, and Malika Saba, and their friend Sepehr Barati pictured last year at Montclair Place. Photo/by Zuhal Barati

In part II of “Nabila’s journey” we learned about her family’s harrowing escape from her native Afghanistan after the Taliban retook control in August 2021. Part III, “Starting from scratch,” picks up just as they have landed in Philadelphia.

By Nabila Painda | Special to the Courier

It was August 30, 2021, and after 48 hours of waiting, then a long flight from Germany, my family and I arrived at Philadelphia International Airport. After several more hours our documents were processed and we were transferred to Fort Dix, a U.S. Army base near Trenton, New Jersey.

There, once again we waited. Hours later, we were given keys to our tent that was within a camp. Fortunately, U.S. military personnel helped us settle in, as we were exhausted and miserable. I was only able to wash my hands and face before collapsing on the bed like a child embraced by its mother.

Many people were still moving around throughout the camp. Some brought ready-made food. And even though we weren’t hungry, it was at least edible, far better than anything else we had during our long journey. The facilities were much better as well. Everything was provided for us; we were given hygiene supplies, clothing, boots, etc. The medical facilities were also improved.

The biggest comfort was that our lives were no longer in danger, and we were in a safe place.

Clockwise, from top left: Masoud Painda, Nabila Painda, Malika Saba, Malika Somaia, and Malika Sama pictured at home in Upland. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

Though grateful for a great many things, still we weren’t allowed to leave, and at times it felt like imprisonment and captivity. Every night we waited for the posting of the names of those allowed to leave the base. Finally, after a long five months, the International Institute of Los Angeles facilitated our transfer to a Homewood Suites hotel in Santa Clarita, California.

We stayed there for about two months. We would go out to buy groceries, we cooked meals, and even hosted guests. Life had improved somewhat. However, just eating well and sleeping peacefully is not much of a life. Our lives were essentially in limbo, with no idea what was next.

During this time I learned there are people — without any salary, expectations, or prior acquaintance — who dedicate all their time to helping others in need. Yes, these are the volunteers who serve only for humanity. I cannot mention everyone’s name, but I would feel ashamed if I didn’t mention Terry Herkner and Janet Elkins. They became my good friends and were with me every step of the way in starting a new life.

In the end, once again with the help of the International Institute of Los Angeles, we managed to sign a contract with the Claremont nonprofit Newcomers Access Center and rent two rooms at the former School of Theology dormitory for $1,600 a month.

We arrived in Claremont and started our lives from scratch.

My eldest daughter Malika Somaia enrolled in kindergarten at Sycamore Elementary School. My husband Masoud, with the help of my friend Aisha Hoda, found a job and obtained a driver’s license. I also passed my driving permit test on the first try. The Newcomers Access Center helped us set up a bank account. And since I’d never driven a car, I enrolled in a driver’s training course.

We were also given bicycles so that we could have some mobility and be able to care for ourselves. In Afghanistan, it was not considered proper for women to ride bicycles. I asked my husband several times to help me learn. He practiced with me but seemed to discourage my efforts. He would tell me not to trouble myself with trying to learn to ride. But I didn’t give up. One day, I fell off the bicycle 28 times. My hands and knees were bleeding, and I was crying, but I kept telling myself if I can’t do it today, I’ll never be able. After three hours I managed to ride my bicycle. I was extremely proud of myself!

Nabila Painda learning to ride a bicycle in April 2022. Photo/by Sohaib Shamim

But new challenges and difficulties were just beginning.

I was told it would be difficult to find a job since I had children and no childcare. I started researching government assistance for childcare. Then in June 2022 I was able to enroll both of my preschool aged children in Kiddie Academy. Once they were at Kiddie, I began to search in earnest for a job.

I couldn’t work night shifts or in restaurants due to my responsibilities at home with my children and parents. So where could I start? No one would accept my educational and work documents from Afghanistan. Then I was introduced to Claremont Canopy founder and Executive Director Christy Anderson, and Natalie Taylor, and asked them for help. They graciously wrote reference letters and even searched for job opportunities for me.

Several weeks later I received an email for an interview with Claremont Unified School District. After the interview, they told me I was accepted and to wait for a call. On August 31, 2022, I started my job as a para-educator at Oakmont Elementary School. Fortunately, I was also able to transfer my eldest daughter to the same school.

Regardless of the many other challenges I continued to face, I now remained happy. By the way, I am now currently working at Chaparral Elementary School and loving it!

Housing continued to be a challenge. For about five months, we didn’t know day from night due to the struggle to find a home. We couldn’t afford double the rent, nor did we have any co-signers or credit. Eventually, we were able to rent a house in Upland for $3,100. We moved in on September 2, 2022.

Nabila Painda’s daughter Malika Saba is pictured at the Islamic Center of Claremont School in November 2023. Photo/courtesy of Nabila Painda

After numerous failed attempts I finally managed to get my driver’s license in March 2023. I bought a car in April, which has made it much easier for me to care for my own and my family’s needs.

Another challenge was caring for my parents, who do not speak English or drive. They are also not familiar with the local geography and are not proficient with technology. Fortunately, they live with me which makes it a little easier.

All these challenges, struggles, losses, achievements, and sacrifices were only for the sake of preserving our lives and securing a better future for our three children.

And finally, after more than a year of waiting, I heard the good news that my request for asylum has been approved, and that is how I became an American. I am forever grateful to International Institute of Los Angeles President Cambria Tortorelli for her assistance in making all this happen.

I want to say thank you to the United States and all the Americans who welcomed us with open arms and helped us start our lives from scratch.

The beginning!

Nabila Painda is a Claremont Unified School District para educator and native of Afghanistan, where she was a high school principal.


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