LAS CRUCES – It’s a sunny Saturday at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market, and for three new Las Crucens, it’s a mix of familiarity and culture shock. They are refugees who fled Afghanistan when the US-backed government fell last year and the Taliban regained power after 20 years.
They are in awe at the number of people walking dogs, as pet dogs are uncommon where they come from. The smell of cooked meat, street tacos and kettle corn linger, but the refugees have dietary restrictions that disallow them from trying many of the foods. They stopped to watch Christopher Van Inga perform tricks with his bird, Phinneas, absolutely delighted by the spectacle.
They joke with Ali Scotten, their translator and cultural mentor, about opening up a stand to sell halal Afghan food at the market. Scotten mentions that this type of place reminds them of bazaars they’d frequent back home, where residents shop for most of their food. For these refugees, this is their favorite part of their new lives in New Mexico because it’s the place where they see the most people out and about in one place. People in the US prefer to drive rather than walk, they mention, limiting interactions.
These are just three of the more than 200 refugees from Afghanistan resettled in Las Cruces since September. Out of concern for him and the safety of his family back in Afghanistan, the Sun-News is declining to identify one of them. The other two are former Afghan special forces members who are now trying to figure out their next moves in life.
The men stress about the well-being of their families. Last month, they landed jobs as floor technicians at Memorial Medical Center, which was a crucial step in their transition as the federal government provides them limited financial assistance. As they begin to earn income, they’ll send much of it back to their families overseas, while keeping some for themselves.
“Anytime they get a paycheck, we go straight to Western Union and just send as much as we can back there so they can eat,” Scotten said.
Scotten volunteers with the Las Cruces branch of Lutheran Family Services, a refugee resettlement agency, as a cultural mentor. In that role, he helps the refugees set up bank accounts, shop, secure employment and housing, plus myriad other things people must to do set up new lives in a new country. He even talks to them about American fashion and hairstyles they may be interested in trying. Since these refugees are still learning English, he’s an essential part of their transition.
“It’s crazy all the things that you take for granted when you speak the language,” Scotten said. “But they’re really resilient, and they have a really good sense of humor, which I can’t imagine they would still have after everything that’s happened to them.”
Scotten prepared a glossary of translated terms for the men’s supervisors at MMC, like the Farsi words for mop, polishing and sweeping.
Dina Khayal, community engagement coordinator for Lutheran Family Services, said the Las Cruces office has about 37 volunteers serving as mentors in small teams of about 4 to 10 individuals each. She said the mentors serving as team leaders put in a commitment of about six months.
Scotten works as a foreign policy analyst and adjunct professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. His mom is from Iran so he speaks Farsi and Dari and can converse with the men, unlike some of the other mentors.
“Basically, when I learned that there was going to be Afghans coming here, I was like, well, I kind of speak their language, so definitely would like to help out,” Scotten said. “Then when I heard about the cultural mentorship program, it was something I was really excited about.”
Scotten said the refugees have been generous to him, offering home-cooked meals. He’s been introducing them to American pop culture, though they’re familiar with it somewhat.
“They think when they come to America, it’s like heaven, like… everything is going to be amazing here,” Scotten said. “They see these movies, everyone’s partying, everyone’s having a good time.”
Harsh reality sets in. Scotten said it can be a tough transition for the men to go from elite fighters in their home country to working menial jobs here in the US
“You were this cool dude going to the village, everyone’s giving you all this respect, and now you’re cleaning floors,” Scotten said.
Adapting to American life
Kheyali Jan Orgoni served in the Afghan special forces for 11 years. Starting in 2020, Orgoni provided logistical support for US forces in the region, he said. When the Taliban began to regain power, Orgoni had to flee without even saying goodbye to his family. After more than a week in Qatar, Orgoni caught a flight that eventually landed him in Indiana. He spent three months there before he was relocated to Las Cruces.
Orgoni, through Scotten translating, said he enlisted in the military after his father and some cousins, also in the military, were killed in a suicide bombing. Not only did this inspire him to fight, he said, but he became the main breadwinner for his family and needed a good job. The military provided that.
Now in Las Cruces, Orgoni is adapting to American life. He makes content on TikTok, for instance, and is still trying to figure out his career path.
“We try to have a good time, but it’s tough because always in the back of your mind your family is still there under threat of the Taliban,” Scotten said. “They are having trouble eating so it’s always in the back of your mind.”
Jaweed Mustafazada is a 26-year-old who served for nine years in the Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force. Through a translator, Mustafazada says he enlisted in the military nearly a decade ago to serve his country and his people.
During the Taliban takeover Mustafazada fled to Uzbekistan, though his family remained in Afghanistan. He stayed at a camp with other soldiers in squalid conditions, he described through a translator. Eventually he ended up in Virginia. Since he had no existing family in the United States, Mustafazada said he wasn’t given a choice over his relocation to Las Cruces, but he likes the area so far and said people are kind.
Mustafazada wants to be a mechanic, having worked as one before joining the military.
For the men to pursue most careers in the US, learning English will be the key. They currently take classes through a Las Cruces Public Schools program once a week.
“I think the first barrier is English,” said Khayal. “Learning English is really important (for them to get jobs).”
The men are trying to help their families flee Afghanistan and come to the US Scotten said some of them will soon meet with immigration attorneys through LFS about their families.
“They spent their entire adult lives fighting the Taliban and supporting US troops,” Scotten said, “and the one thing that they want more than anything is to have their families come and… they want people to pressure the government, and for the government to try and speed up the process. “
Continue reading about Afghan evacuees in Las Cruces:
Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, email@example.com or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.