Mrs. Ghafoori greets me warmly at the door and ushers me into the simple apartment where she lives with her husband and 4 children. As I settle on the couch with her 18-month-old son, Mrs. Ghafoori disappears behind a curtain into the kitchen. Prominently displayed across from where I’m seated is a Purple Heart Award next to a picture of her husband, Booyah, in military fatigues. She returns moments later with tea and an assortment of nuts and raisins carefully placed on an intricately carved wood platter.
Mrs. Ghafoori and Booyah are Muslims from Afghanistan. Booyah served as an interpreter with US Green Berets in Afghanistan for 11 years. He witnessed the Taliban destroying Afghanistan and sought to restore peace by supporting the Americans in the fight against terrorism. Booyah utilized his English language skills to find work as an interpreter for the US Special Forces. Additionally, interpreting pays more than many other jobs available in Afghanistan. It does, however, come with a couple inherent risks; injury or death.
Mrs. Ghafoori worried about her husband – how would she provide for their growing family if he was injured or killed? Then it happened... During a dangerous and ill-planned mission in April 2008, Booyah was wounded and his best friend was killed. Fortunately, Booyah recovered physically, but the emotional scars from the battle and the time away from his family caused him to leave military service. Even though he had nearly sacrificed his life for the US, he didn’t have a safe community to return to. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other jihadi groups knew who he was and marked him as a target to be killed.
Like many interpreters, called “terps”, Booyah built strong relationships with the soldiers in his unit. His US Captai, helped Booyah pursue an SIV (Special Immigration Visa) specifically for Afghan & Iraqi Interpreters. The application took time but in 2014, Booyah and his family moved to the United States. Unlike refugees who receive financial assistance for a few months, Booyah’s family received no assistance for resettlement. The American Dream they thought they would find turned into a nightmare. They moved around the Southeast for several months even ending up in a homeless shelter for a few weeks. When Booyah’s Captain heard they were living in a shelter, he invited them to move to his house in Sanford – it is a day the family will never forget. After a few months, they moved to Charlotte where one of Booyah’s fellow Afghani interpreters lived. According to Mrs. Ghafoori, many of the Afghan families living in Charlotte relocated to the US under the same SIV program for military interpreters.
Shortly after moving to Charlotte, Mrs. Ghafoori and Booyah were introduced to Project 658, a non-profit that comes alongside families in East Charlotte with practical solutions for their daily lives. At 658 they found a community, English classes, and other resources to help them transition to a stable life in Charlotte. Booyah found a construction job, they enrolled their older children in school and finally began to settle into what they thought was a safe neighborhood.
One day when their family was together at the local grocery store, an older man began cursing at them and calling them “terrorists”. He followed them out of the store and continued to berate them. Fortunately, a passerby intervened to stop the attack, but Booyah was angry and visibly shaken. He risked his life to battle terrorists and personally took a bullet; his best friend was killed in action. He brought his family to the US to find peace and safety yet his family is sometimes viewed as the enemy because of their middle-eastern ethnicity and Mrs. Ghafoori’s headscarf.
My friendship with Mrs. Ghafoori began at the Jewelry Project Fashion & Compassion hosts at Project 658 with the support of Forest Hill Church. Fashion & Compassion (F&C), is a non-profit that provides part-time transitional employment making jewelry to women overcoming poverty and injustice. F&C hosts a weekly jewelry project at Project 658 on Central Avenue each Friday where women from a variety of different cultures and ethnicities earn income making jewelry that F&C sells to fund their work. Fashion & Compassion’s Jewelry Projects include community volunteers and staff who build relationships and trust across racial, socioeconomic, cultural and religious divides in an environment that builds confidence through dignified work and community support.
Fashion & Compassion and Project 658 are Christian, faith-based organizations that include Biblical teaching in their programs. The Jewelry Project includes an optional 30-minute Bible-based discussion. When Mrs. Ghafoori first started attending the Jewelry Project, she chose not to participate in the discussion. However, as the relationships grew with the staff, volunteers and other women, she began to participate. She felt welcomed to share her view of and relationship with Allah, despite the differences in beliefs. Mrs. Ghafoori chose to focus on the similarities in our respective faiths rather than the differences. And her willingness to share has led more Muslims to join the project resulting in a beautiful web of cross-cultural and inter-faith friendships.
As we finished our tea, Mrs. Ghafoori mentioned that she looks forward to jewelry project all week because of the love, community, and purpose she’s found there. The reality is, she hasn’t just found it, she’s built it. She’s invested love, care, vulnerability, patience, humility and time into building the community we have all come to treasure.
And the next time you see a middle-eastern Muslim in Charlotte, make no assumptions and warmly reach out… it may be a Muslim hero in your midst.
*Her full name has not been included for her privacy.
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