Last month, the kids surprised us with a visit. As usual, they piled into Hussain’s car and drove the six hours from Lynchburg, Va., to Philadelphia. Also as usual, the house was filled with the aroma of Afghan cooking, Afghan music, a constant chatter of Farsi, and laughter.
In truth, they are not really kids. They range in age from 19 to 28. Nor are they all our kids. Hussain, the 25-year-old, was essentially our “kid,” since he lived with us while we were his legal guardians. And over the years, three of his siblings — Hawa, Husnia, and Ali, who now live in the United States — have also become part of our family.
But it was not always this way. In 2010, my husband, Kevin, and I were living in West Mount Airy with our 12-year-old son, Ben, when a colleague sent me this email: “There is a 16-year-old Afghani boy who has gotten a scholarship to Friends Select School. He needs a host family for a year or two. You know a lot of people. Could you spread the word?” I spread the word as far as Kevin and Ben. We quickly agreed that we could host a teenager. So Hussain came to live with us that September — which changed our lives completely, forever, and for the best.
Hussain is the second youngest of seven children, whose father was murdered in a 1999 Taliban massacre. Hussain’s mother has been sending each of her children to the United States through the student visa program so that they can escape their homeland terror and receive a good education. [The four who are here have since applied for political asylum; The Inquirer is withholding their last names for the protection of their family back home.] In today’s Afghanistan, it is difficult for girls to get more than an elementary education. And teenage boys are often pressured to leave school to work menial jobs and provide contributions to their families’ income.
Hussain was the second to arrive in the States, following his sister Husnia, who was entering her senior year at Friends Select. Although he had good grades in Afghanistan, Hussain struggled with school in Philly. He had spent 12 years listening to lectures, being asked to memorize facts, and instructed to repeat information precisely. Everything about Friends Select was new to him, especially having to use ingenuity and imagination. Besides, Hussain told us, “In Afghanistan, if you asked questions in school, you got hit.” It took him a long time to ask questions, seek help, and learn to use his brain to its fullest potential.
Hussain faced other challenges. As a male child in a large Afghan family, he had never cooked for himself, put away his own clothes, managed his schedule or — as he explained it — “ever made a decision in my life.” He had a cell phone but had never seen a traffic light, eaten pasta, slept in a bed, or touched a dog.
But Hussain persevered. He learned to do laundry, became a fantastic cook, navigated SEPTA, and helped us adopt a dog. He made many friends, particularly through soccer programs offered by the Starfinder Foundation. Most profoundly, though, was that he became the first male in his family to graduate from high school. He then moved to Lynchburg to be near his sister Husnia, attended college, and graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, with a concentration in accounting. He now has a full-time customer-service job at a large bank. When his youngest sibling Ali (who is attending high school in Lynchburg) graduates in 2020, Hussain and his siblings will move to a larger city with more opportunity and more diversity.
People often tell us how generous we were to “adopt” Hussain and, by extension, to embrace his whole Afghan family. Not at all. Hussain is one of the most kindhearted, generous, and loving people on the planet. He and Ben, who is now 21, are best friends and spend more time with one another than with either Kevin or me. Although his mother is still very much alive in Afghanistan, Hussain has called me “Mom” for nine years, and is a permanent, irreplaceable part of our family.
And a bit of personal context. I grew up an only child and vowed to have many children one day. Fate gave us only one biological child — but then gifted us with Hussain and his siblings, expanding our family from three to seven. I could never have imagined how exquisite a family this would be. Moreover, inviting children into one’s home extends back two generations in my family. My father and his brother were part of the 1938 “Kindertransport,” through which approximately 10,000 German Jewish children were hosted by compassionate British families during World War II. If strangers had not welcomed my father and uncle, I would not be alive today.
The need of Hussain’s family is as desperate as was my own father’s.
His mother, two more siblings, a sister-in-law, and an infant are still in Afghanistan. They are trying to evade the Taliban and several relatives, all of whom have threatened “honor” killings to punish the family’s flight from ethnic, religious, and gender persecution. They move every few weeks to avoid discovery. They hope to emigrate to the United States but their application for humanitarian parole has been denied. They are now in the appeals process, and we worry about them every single day.
And yet we continue to enjoy the blessings of our extended family. A few years ago, Hussain and I were standing in the kitchen, preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Out of the blue, he said, “Someday I want to be like you and dad. I want to be able to do something like you did for me. I want to give back to other people.”
What could be better than that?
Nancy Peter is director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund.