This content was published on Aug 08, 2021 – 11:37
The walls of the one-bedroom apartment that Sam Zalmi shares with his wife and children in Virginia are adorned with images of Afghan landscapes, reminiscent of his native country, which he calls his “second home.”
Zalmi, 35, landed at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, three years ago with his wife Zarifa and their then four-year-old daughter. He entered on a special visa, the same document that would be a ticket to the United States for thousands of Afghans thanks to a program approved by the government in the midst of the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, which was devastated after decades of conflict.
“We, the younger generations, need to rebuild our country. Our country needs us. Unfortunately, because of security … we left our homeland,” Al-Zalmi told AFP from the apartment near the US capital.
“A home is always a beautiful home, but we have no other choice.”
More than 200 Afghans working for the United States during the military intervention arrived in Dallas last week thanks to a program to evacuate thousands of people from the country.
Many of them fear reprisals from the Taliban fighters, who in recent months have taken control of large areas of the Afghan army.
It’s a vivid story of Zalmi, who has worked as a photographer for NATO and USAID for a decade. But in the face of Taliban threats against him and his family, he decided to apply for a visa.
Leaving the job she loved – for which she was awarded the Afghan Government Medal – and having to learn English while keeping her family afloat was difficult.
Zalmi advanced with the help of the government, his Afghan comrades, strangers turned friends, and with the newcomers he wants to return the favor.
– Do not come back –
The effect of the exile was so strong that after two months, he and his wife wanted to return to Afghanistan, where they shared a house with Zalmi’s mother – who has been raised since last year by the coronavirus – and his siblings, including a twin brother, who received threats because they had wronged him.
Al-Zalami said he was ready to return despite the threats and the loss of family members in the attacks.
“If I die there, people know me. But if I die here, no one will know me. It was very difficult.”
The language barrier was, at first, a huge obstacle for the whole family.
“My English wasn’t good. Nobody understood me when I spoke. My wife can’t speak English, my daughter can’t speak English,” he said, while the girl, who is now seven and speaks impeccable English with an American accent, played with his brother .
Some Afghan friends convinced him to stay and helped him get started as a driver for apps like Uber and Lyft.
They taught him to drive on American roads and sold him his first car.
“Teach me how to run your life in America. Teach me: ‘Don’t come back.'”
– ‘King of the camera’ –
Zalmi made new friends when he moved to the United States, including with a passenger and her family, who helped him stay afloat when the American Dream faltered.
When their son was born and had to stay in the hospital for a month, their American friends helped them with rent and Medicaid, the federal government health insurance for those who needed it most, and foot the bill, especially expensive in the United States.
After driving with just $50 in his pocket, Zalmi now owns two cars and feels confident driving his stylish Honda, also adorned with mementos from his homeland, such as the Afghan rug covering the trunk lid.
Although the business works in his favor, he prefers to be behind the camera at the wheel.
“I still suppose my goal is to become the king of the camera in Washington, D.C. It may happen one day. Anything is possible if I take it easy, and work hard.”
As he drives, he says he is ready to lend a helping hand to the Afghans who arrive.
“If you want me to take you, I can do it…the same thing people have done for me,” he sums up.
And I would say, ‘You’re welcome.’ Welcome to America. “