Afghan refugees resettled in Mojave adjust to a new life in a new country

May 31, 2024 / and

The remote Kern County desert community of Mojave 61 miles east from Bakersfield has one grocery store, limited transportation service, and hasn’t had a hospital in more than 50 years, according to Ted Hodgkins, president of the Mojave Chamber of Commerce. A small health clinic serves the town’s 4,000 or so residents. It is also home to some 160 to 180 Afghan refugees comprising 30 families that have been resettled in a mobile home park, Santiago Desert View Estates. They fled their homeland because they had no choice. 

Welcome to Mojave sign in Mojave, CA. Located 61 miles east from Bakersfield, CA. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

“My life was in danger,” said 21-year-old Harold Rahimi. “My father was in the military and he worked with the U.S. Army in fighting the Taliban,” said Rahimi in his best English. Rahimi arrived in the U.S. three years ago, married and has a 6-month-old daughter. He works in construction and wants to pursue his education, but finds it frustrating there is no community college in Mojave. But he feels safe. “Here we are alone, it’s a desert, but I miss my family in Afghanistan,” he said. He left behind two brothers, two sisters and elderly parents. Rahimi has resigned himself that his past is just that. “This will be my country! Life is good here,” he said. 

Afghan refugees began arriving in Mojave in December of 2021 as part of a national humanitarian effort involving a group of nonprofits, Kern County agencies and private organizations. One of those groups is Affordable Community Living (ACL) from Southern California that has been helping Afghan refugees with affordable housing resettle in different parts of California. 

Project manager of Refugee Housing, Niamatullah Aslami (Nimo), driving around in his mobile home park as he shares about the Afghan culture and the Refugee Housing program in Mojave, CA. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

Niamatullah Aslami is the project manager of Refugee Housing for ACL, better known as Nimo among his American friends. A burly man with a commanding presence, Aslami has a smile for everyone in the mobile home park. An integral part of the Afghan community, he is constantly approached by his fellow refugees and is the go-to man for help with just about everything. It’s not all serious talk, as he banters and laughs with the residents. He kicks an errant soccer ball back to kids playing on the grounds. 

“They are all in this country legally, having been vetted by the government, given asylum and have work visas,” said Aslami. He proudly talks about the program and the Afghan culture, which centers on family and elders are paid deep respect, even if not related by blood. The site has 61 trailer homes with three, two and one bedrooms. “Afghan families are big, with seven,eight or nine people, so all the three and two bedroom trailers are full. Single men live in the one bedroom,” said Aslami as he drove around the complex. Fluent in English, Aslami was given the nickname Nimo by American military personnel in Afghanistan His language skills grew and he became an interpreter. That skill now serves him well in his adopted country. 

Families hanging out in the mobile park playground in Mojave, CA.

The complex provides more than just housing for the families. It also facilitates a community where they can rely on each other for mutual support in their adopted country. Women walk together, some accompanied by small children while men congregate separately.

Children of all ages play outdoors, riding donated bicycles or gather at the small playground where toddlers laugh while riding swings. A group of around six or seven boys do soccer moves as they play with the mobile park’s only soccer ball. Several said their dream is to become a professional soccer player. 

Two children playing with the mobile park’s only soccer ball in Mojave, CA. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

Around 20 students from the complex attend schools in the Mojave Unified School district. School in the United States is a lot different from Afghanistan. “(In Afghanistan) you don’t get to play, there’s no lunch, no nothing, you couldn’t learn anything,” said 12-year-old Ashaq Kakar. The 7th grade student said he arrived in Mojave eight months ago and is making friends at his new school. “I just ask if they want to be my friend and they say, ‘OK,;” said Kakar. 

Teaching immigrant children is not a new challenge in the district. “We have resources and teaching techniques plus books in their native language,” said Katherine Aguirre, Superintendent of Mojave Unified School District. The Afghan students, said Aguirre, speak Farsi and Pashto. “Learning English, they are becoming trilingual,” said Aguirre. She added, “Even though their formal English is limited, their playground English is good.” The relatively small number of Afghan children in the district has not had any significant impact on school resources. “I’m really glad they’re here, it’s a great thing to bring them,” said Aguirre. 

A long journey 

Getting to the United States was an arduous–and dangerous–trek for 28-year-old Shariz Sultani and Mahdi Jafani, 16. Granted humanitarian visas by the Brazilian government, the pair decided to try their luck and head for the United States to seek asylum. The pair traveled more than 4,500 miles from Sao Paulo to Mexico City. They took a combination of vehicles and lots and lots of walking through unknown territories as they traversed several countries. “We were going through rivers, we were exhausted,” recalled Sultani. The plan was to make it to Mexico City and then catch a plane to Tijuana where they would cross at the San Ysidro port of entry into the United States. Sultani and Jafani would join other migrants from around the world along the way as they also were making the dangerous journey in hope of eventually making it to and being granted asylum in the United States. But there was no guarantee. 

Shariz Sultani, 28, (left) and Mahdi Jafani, 16, (right) sharing their journey of how they traveled to the U.S. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

“Panama was one of the most dangerous places, especially in the jungle. That’s where we saw many dead people who had died along the way also making the journey to the United States,” said Sultani. To keep him going, Sultani would sing lyrics from the song, “Unstoppable” by Sia. I put my armor on, show you how strong I am. I put my armor on, I’ll show you that I am unstoppable…” 

After crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, the pair took a bus for Mexico City. Three hours into their journey, the bus was stopped at a military checkpoint. Sultani and Jafani were ordered to get off the bus and taken back to the Tapachula port of entry with Guatemala. Perhaps galvanized by the song’s lyrics, the pair boarded another bus and headed anew to Mexico City. This time they knew what to look for. As the bus approached a military checkpoint, the pair, and other immigrants, would get off the bus and walk around the checkpoint. They eventually

arrived in Mexico City, caught a plane to Tijuana and eventually were able to cross into the United States seeking asylum and were eventually brought to Mojave by ACL. 

Shariz Sultani, 28, recalling his long dangerous journey to the U.S. and how music helped him to keep going. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

“I’m not even starting at point zero, I’m starting from minus something,” said Sultani who is the only one from his family able to leave Afghanistan. 

Sixteen year-old Jafani arrived in Mojave two weeks ago and was able to reunite with his parents in the U.S. His family was able to flee Afghanistan and lived in Iran for a short while. While they risked their lives to leave their country, Jafani said giving up was never an option. “We are Afghans, we never give up!” he said. 

Getting Acquainted 

A random talk with shoppers at Stater Bros Markets revealed people in Mojave have limited knowledge of the local Afghan community, having heard only bits and pieces of their arrival. One community member, a woman in her mid 20’s who did not want to give her name said, 

Residents walking into Mojave’s only grocery store Stater Bros. (Haley Duval / Kern Sol News)

“I don’t really know enough about them, but as long as they’re safe, yeah, that’s what matters.” James Bowenowen has lived six years in Mojave and took a similar stance. “If they’re decent people, it doesn’t matter what religion or what country they come from, it doesn’t matter.” A teacher at Mojave Elementary shared that although she does not have any students in her classroom from the Afghan refugee community, she knows other colleagues who do and hopes the best for them. Mojave resident Cameron Epps was likewise empathetic to the refugees plight. 

“I know there’s always a backstory for them to be here, and maybe they had a hard life and stuff. America is willing to accept people,” said Epps.

A full list of community needs and contact information is available at https://www.specialforces78.com/acl-afghan-refugee-housing-project/

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Jose Gaspar

José Gaspar is a veteran journalist and former news anchor/reporter with Telemundo, Bakersfield. Prior, he worked 28 years at KBAK-TV as a reporter. Email him at jose@southkernsol.org.

Haley Duval

Haley is a reporter for Kern Sol News since December of 2023. She was born and raised in East Bakersfield and went to Foothill High School. Haley has AA in Journalism from Bakersfield College. When Haley is not reporting, she enjoys writing poetry, reading, traveling and spending time with friends and family. She can be reach at haley@southkernsol.org.