They Had Each Other: The Survival Story of Six Refugee Siblings

By: Davina Abujudeh, URM Social Worker

My colleagues, a set of foster parents, and I waited anxiously outside a gate at Ronald Reagan Airport. Most of us were sipping coffee, as it was already past 11pm. Despite the hour, we all felt the tension of excitement. We would be welcoming a family of six siblings. The four younger siblings, age 10-16 at the time, would be placed in a licensed foster home that would also house two adult sisters. The fact we were able to identify a home willing to foster the four youth, AND house the two adults, was a feat we boasted about for weeks.

I would think that when most people conjure up an image of newly arrived refugees stepping off a plane into their lives in America, they might imagine individuals proudly and bravely marching out of their past and embracing the adventure and endless opportunity awaiting them. This time, when the six siblings walked cautiously out of the gate and in our direction, we saw fear, confusion, exhaustion, hunger, and even a little sadness. The group looked completely overwhelmed and clung to each other as though they would be stripped from one another at any moment. They did not speak a word of English, but that didn’t stop me from embracing them as though I had known them for years.

In the months following, the siblings began to adjust to their lives in the U.S. The two youngest girls quickly began learning English and the two brothers expressed interest in soccer and weightlifting. All were enrolled in local public schools and the METS program, designed to bring youth, with gaps in their formal education, up to grade level. The two adult sisters began to develop plans for their full independence as young women.

We saw their personalities bloom. Sadaf, the fiery and fierce 11-year-old sister who served as the self-appointed family advocate; Nadia, the sweet 10-year-old who would run and jump into the arms of our staff; Faisal, the reserved and awkward 15-year-old brother who struggled to come out of his shell like any other teenage boy; and Noormal, the 16-year-old brother who had spent most of his childhood supporting his family by working in a shoe factory and struggled to adjust to the expectations of school.

Every day, we learned more about them until one day our hearts sank, learning that the family had once been much larger. Their father and oldest brother were both killed in Afghanistan, forcing them to flee to Pakistan. While there, they lived as “urban refugees” with many other Afghan migrants. A second older brother disappeared from the family under unknown circumstances and was never seen or heard from again. Eventually, their mother became ill and passed away. With their mother’s passing, the siblings were alone in a foreign country where they did not fit in with a young, uneducated boy as their sole breadwinner. The two adult sisters worked as much as possible, but because they were women, steady work was unavailable. And when one sister was stabbed in the arm by a stranger on a motorcycle, she was partially disabled and unable to do her usual work of making clothes and doing henna dying. Through the despair and loss, they made ends meet. The family was housed, fed, and clothed, and they ensured that the three youngest siblings had access to education.

Life was not easy. The family was under constant stress, seeking survival every day. They pulled through because they had each other. They did not have large meals, warm shoes, soft beds, or a room full of toys, so they clung to each other instead.

Refugee sisters are presented with their foster care license and certificates by their social worker, Yolanda (center).

Today, the two adult sisters rent a two-bedroom apartment in Riverdale, MD. They have their second bedroom set up for Nadia and Sadaf, who come every weekend to visit, along with Faisal and Noormal. They attend weddings, birthday parties, and other special events with their new community of Afghan neighbors. The adult sisters are completing the licensing process to become D.C. foster parents and eagerly await Nadia and Sadaf’s move into their home. The sisters hope to eventually move into a larger apartment and have Noormal and Faisal (now adults themselves) move in with them, as well. 

*Support the URM foster care program through a one-time or reoccurring donation. Every donation allows us to recruit and train more homes to foster refugee youth fleeing war and gang violence. 


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