Afghans find a home in Lexington

For most of us, getting on an airplane is a good thing. We’re going to visit family or take a vacation with friends. It’s not a matter of life and death. But it was for Laiq Lakanwall, 34, and Fahimullah Tanai, 20. The two Afghans’ lives were thrown into turmoil by the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Afghanistan, which ended a war that began in 2001 but led to the collapse of the Afghan national security forces and the takeover of the country by the Taliban. That withdrawal set Lakanwall and Tanai on their journeys to Lexington, Nebraska. They took different routes, but for them both, leaving Afghanistan meant a single destination: Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Lakanwall’s short hair and shaved face easily identified him as a member of the Afghan military where he had served as an interpreter and trainer in a joint operation with U.S. special forces. The Taliban was searching for people just like him.

“It was a difficult moment, but the Taliban was looking in every car and at every person,” he said about his decision to walk for two to three hours from his home to the airport. “It was better to walk.”  From there, Lakanwall flew to Qatar, where he spent 15 or 16 days before leaving for the U.S. He landed in Washington, D.C., and then was sent to a military base in Indiana. During the several months he was there, he became a leader to his 600 fellow building mates.

“I tried to help them with their problems, their issues,” he said. “If they were sick, needed clothes, I helped as much as I could.” He moved to Nebraska because a colonel living in Mason City found him a job at the Eaton Corporation in Kearney and even booked his tickets. Lakanwall worked there for several months before moving to Lexington where he now processes knives for Tyson Foods.

Tanai’s ticket out of Afghanistan was his father, who also worked for the Afghan military. When the withdrawal happened, his father told him to leave their home in a coastal city and come to Kabul. When he got to the airport, he had to wait outside with many other people seeking to leave Afghanistan.

“I had to wait my turn,” said Tanai, who was admitted into the airport on the last day. Like Lakanwall, he went to Qatar first but also spent a few days in Germany before flying to Washington, D.C. He spent six months in Wisconsin and one month in Kansas before moving to Lexington where he works as an interpreter at Tyson Foods.

“There wasn’t a national plan, so we didn’t know they (Afghan asylum seekers and refugees) were making their way to Lexington but we’re a welcoming place,” said Angela Elfgren, adult education coordinator at CCC-Lexington.

Elfgren has often been the first point of contact for the 50 or more Afghans who began arriving in April, and not just for education. She directs them to the appropriate agencies who can help them with food assistance, housing and other needs. These agencies include the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, workforce development, the housing authority and other community partners. Elfgren also helps translate forms so they can understand their content. She said Lakanwall and Tanai are in the minority of Afghans who are educated. Sometimes acclimation needs to be even more basic. The Afghans who lived in remote villages, for example, may not have had electricity or indoor plumbing, so they must be shown how to use a washer and dryer.

“Some of villages are so deep in the mountains that it’s impossible for kids to go to school,” she said. “They aren’t even reading and writing in their own language.” That language would be Pashto or Dari, depending on where they lived in Afghanistan.

“We start with ESL (English as a Second Language) and GED classes,” Elfgren said. “Once they get their GED, we get them into college. They’re excited to be here, to be learning.”

Lakanwall, who was a medical technician in the army, wants to continue improving his English. His goal is to continue the occupation he had in Afghanistan and work in medical science.

“I wanted to come to college so I can be something in the future,” Tanai said. That something may be in the science or computer field.

They also are working to bring family members still living in Afghanistan to the U.S. Tanai’s father and brother are both in the U.S., but his mother and two sisters remain in their home country. So do Lakanwall’s wife and five children. In the meantime, they keep in touch through Facebook. Their feelings about Afghanistan are as deep and complex as the country’s history and culture. Tanai spoke with pride about Afghanistan being rich in its natural resources. “Allah made it very good with mountains and water,” he said. “A lot of countries have tried to come in, but our people are very brave. They don’t want to be beaten.”

Still, in the waning days of America’s presence in Afghanistan, Tanai began to fear that he would be killed on his way to school. “The Taliban doesn’t want people to live in peace,” he said. Lakanwall agreed. He joined the military in high school after witnessing a bomb blast by an enemy of Afghanistan. He supported the Afghan government because it was trying “to make everything better for everyone,” whether it concerned schools, businesses or hospitals.

That was changed by the Taliban, which wants to dictate what makes a Muslim. “Don’t wear modern dress; otherwise, you’re not Muslim,” Lakanwall said. “But Muslim is in your heart and mind, not by power, not by killing.” But Lakanwall and Tanai have found a new home in Lexington. Tanai likes the fact it’s a smaller town. “It’s not so hard to find a clinic or things you need,” he said. For Lakanwall, Lexington provides a lot of opportunity for working and studying. “Our skin, our ideas are a little different,” he said. “But we are human, not something different.”