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Friday, November 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An Afghan family finds that home is where the heart is

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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Editor's noyte: As part of an occasional series, The Seattle Times is exploring the local Arab and Muslim communities.

Three pine cones sit on a bureau. A string of white Christmas lights runs over them, down the bureau and hides behind the couch. A tiny white angel prays by one of the cones.

It's that time of year again, and Western traditions punctuate the space where a foreign family is rebuilding its life.

The two-bedroom apartment in downtown Kent is where Ismail and Rahima Mohamad have called home since arriving in the Seattle area with their three children and three grandchildren 14 months ago.

At 68, Ismail Mohamad has passed the life expectancy of a typical Afghan male by more than 30 years. And he is starting over.

The Mohamads are one of an estimated 300 to 400 Afghan families in the Seattle area, a number authorities expect will increase with more refugees if the war in Afghanistan continues.

The Mohamads say they look forward to the day they can go back home. Until then, they are adjusting to a new culture while trying to preserve ties to the old.

The apartment is a mix of both worlds. Oriental rugs, predominantly red and orange, blanket the floor. A small U.S. flag on a stick leans against the window, and every few minutes, 3-year-old Mail runs to it and waves it around to get attention.

Here he can do that — run and make noise. His family remembers living in Uzbekistan, where the children had to be quiet or police would come and demand U.S. dollars as bribe money.

Guests in the Mohamad house are treated well. They're greeted with two-handed handshakes and kisses on both cheeks. They are fed heaping plates of qabli (rice with raisins and spices), chicken, salad and fruit. The family sits on the floor to eat if there aren't enough chairs for everyone.

Rahima, a silent woman of 64, wears traditional dress while her children and grandchildren don jeans, slacks, T-shirts and tennis shoes.

The eight members of the Mohamad family came to the United States last year with help from World Concern, a Christian organization that helps relocate refugees.

Homa, at 21 the second-oldest daughter, speaks some English and has been able to work. The younger children are in school, and Rahima and Ismail stay home to mind the house and take care of the children.

In Kabul, Homa recalls, the family had a "big, beautiful house" — two floors, 10 rooms.

"Our TV was bigger than this," she laughed as she pointed to the 24-inch screen in the living room of the Kent apartment.

Ismail was a banker and worked in the import/ export business. As unrest in Afghanistan escalated, he lost his job, and the family moved to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in the early 1990s.

Several years earlier, the Mohamads lost a son to the conflict with Russia, a 22-year-old who attended a university in Kabul.

"Somebody came and took him," Homa said. "We never saw him again. We heard that somebody killed him."

From Mazar-e-Sharif, the Mohamads went to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, to visit relatives. When they tried to go home, the border was closed. They spent the next four years moving from apartment to apartment, trying to keep out of the way of police, who often harassed people.

"The Uzbeks don't like Afghans," Homa said.

When border restrictions eventually became looser, the family did not return to Afghanistan because the Taliban had taken over, and the situation there was even worse, Homa said.

Finally, Ismail went to the U.N. Humanitarian Committee and asked that his family be allowed to emigrate as refugees.

Seven months later, on Sept. 5, 2000, the Mohamads arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and were met by Keith and Linda Moerer of Bellevue, who had responded to an ad in their church newsletter at Westminster Chapel requesting families to open their homes to refugees.

The Moerers and another family split the Mohamads between them: Ismail and Rahima, their daughters Homa; Lima, 13; Mopikar, 31; and Mopikar's three children, Mail; Sahir, 5; and Soyel, 7.

During their three-week stay with the Moerers, the Mohamads received dental care for the first time, Ismail had hernia surgery, and Mail had his cleft lip repaired. The children rode bikes, watched cartoons and played with 3-year-old Allison Moerer. The families went to the zoo and the malls, and the Mohamads cooked Afghan meals for their hosts.

Teachers from the church gave the family English lessons — a fourth language for Ismail, who already spoke Uzbek, Dari Farsi and Russian.

At night, Moerer said, the Mohamads would call home, trying to reach relatives in Afghanistan as well as contacts in other states, Canada, England and Pakistan.

They finally found a rental near the World Relief office in Kent. Mopikar and her three children share a three bedroom apartment while Ismail, Rahima, Homa and Lima share another apartment nearby.

Ismail and Rahima receive $990 a month from welfare and Social Security.

Homa has held several service jobs, paying about $8 an hour. As an educated woman, she feels frustrated and embarrassed because her English prevents her from working someplace meaningful to her. In January, however, she will attend Green River Community College, with financial aid.

Lima is in the English-as-a-second-language program at Mattson Middle School in Kent. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, one boy at school swore at her, but such instances have been rare, the family says.

The hardest part for the adults is remembering what was left behind, said Moerer, recalling when Ismail would talk about his homeland and show pictures of other relatives abroad.

"You can tell he loves his country," Moerer said.

Mopikar hasn't seen her husband in three years; her children do not know their father. He was with the family in Tashkent but went back to Mazar-e-Sharif before the Mohamads left for the United States, and they eventually lost touch.

"This is too hard for her," Homa said of Mopikar.

Ismail doesn't speak much English, but when the war in Afghanistan is mentioned, he launches into a diatribe in Dari Farsi, an Afghan form of Persian. His body is tense, his voice strong and loud, and the words come out fast.

"We don't know the politics," Homa says, translating what she can, "but we know our enemy is Pakistan."

The Mohamads spend much of their meager income on phone cards. Many cousins, aunts, siblings are still overseas, and keeping in touch is a priority.

"Food is not necessary for my house; I will call my children," Homa said, quoting her mother.

But Homa says things are looking up.

"We are OK now here," she said. "Here is like my country because we find a lot of Afghani people. We like it here."

Aydrea Walden can be reached at 206-464-2342 or awalden@seattletimes.com.

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