CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Harrowing refugee story ends with hope

After 20 years as a refugee in the Ukraine, Afghani native Marzia Din Mohammad (far right) now has a home in Brewer, Maine.  In the photo she is joined by her friend and interpreter, Anna Baglay-Bouchard (center), and her daughter, Hila (left).
After 20 years as a refugee in the Ukraine, Afghani native Marzia Din Mohammad (far right) now has a home in Brewer, Maine. In the photo she is joined by her friend and interpreter, Anna Baglay-Bouchard (center), and her daughter, Hila (left).
Posted Nov. 23, 2012, at 6:15 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 23, 2012, at 3:15 p.m.

Rather than dwell on today’s chaos of consumption known as Black Friday, I’d like to share a story that is more in line with yesterday’s spirit of giving thanks. This story spans the globe from Afghanistan to the United States by way of Uzbekistan and the Ukraine. It concerns a family of nine children and recounts hardships the likes of which most of us can barely imagine. Nevertheless, it includes a heaping helping of joy.

The first layer of the story involves an interpreter named Anna Baglay-Bouchard. Anna is a native of Russia who has taught English to non-English speakers for many years in several countries. Through a complex series of life events, she found herself living in Maine where she got a job with the Bangor Interpreting Agency. But helping people navigate language barriers is more than a job for Anna, and when she learned about the Literacy Volunteers program, she signed up.

Through her paid work, Anna was connected with Marzia Din Mohammad and her children, recent arrivals to Brewer. Marzia is a native of Afghanistan, but after fleeing her home country she lived for many years with her husband and children in the Ukraine. Marzia knows the Pashtun and Dari languages from Afghanistan. She also learned Ukrainian and Russian, which is why the Bangor Interpreting Agency paired her with Anna. Through that work, Anna got to know Marzia and her children and was soon dazzled by their spirit and their story. Now, in addition to her professional relationship as an interpreter for Marzia, Anna is working as a Literacy Volunteer to teach her friend to speak English, her fifth language.

While Marzia’s younger children were in school, I met her at her home in Brewer, with Anna there as friend and translator. Marzia gestured for me to join them at a table laden with tea and treats for my visit. While Marzia spoke and Anna translated, I listened to the story that led Marzia and her family to Maine.

More than 20 years ago, Marzia and her husband fled Afghanistan in fear of violence from the Mujahideen. They lived briefly in Uzbekistan before moving again to the Ukraine, where they had some extended family. Two of their children stayed with relatives in Uzbekistan, with the idea that they would be reunited soon. Unfortunately, due to the complexities of visas, coupled with their struggles to survive, Marzia and her husband were never reunited with those two children.

One night after their teenage daughter returned home late, Marzia’s husband kicked her out into the street. Marzia did not see her daughter again for months. When her husband became physically violent, she made the wrenching decision to place her seven children into an orphanage for their safety. Still, she felt that she could not leave the man that she had been with for such a long time.

In the ensuing years, Marzia faced abject poverty, a husband who was ravaged by alcoholism, periods of homelessness and domestic abuse. She worked as much as she could, selling things from a concrete market booth, which sometimes became their only residence. At other times, they slept in old trucks on the side of the road and lived off takings from the dump.

Under circumstances that Marzia still does not understand, her husband was beaten so severely one day by two men in their temporary shelter that he died of his injuries. But Marzia’s fortunes were about to change.

A woman from a Bangor-area church visited the Sunshine Orphanage in Kiev, where Marzia’s children had lived for three years. She was smitten by the children and soon met Marzia as well. With the help and support of many dedicated volunteers, Marzia and her seven children were reunited, achieved refugee status, and came to the U.S. just over a year ago. Last winter they moved to Brewer, where they have been provided with support systems to launch a new life. Marzia’s older children have jobs, the younger ones are in school and she is working hard to learn English.

The resilience and spirit of Marzia’s family was most strikingly illustrated by the entrance of her 21-year-old daughter, Hila. As we were chatting, Hila swept into the room like fresh air. Her eyes twinkled, she shook my hand with effusive welcome, and sat for a photo before leaving for work.

“They’re all like that,” said Anna, referring to Marzia’s children. “Always laughing and giggling.”

It was a startling juxtaposition – Marzia’s harrowing tale and Hila’s vivacious presence. But Anna shared an anecdote that made it perfectly logical.

“I feel sorry for rich people,” Hila once told Anna. “They do not know how to enjoy the things I know how to enjoy.”

A job at McDonald’s, a home with your family, and the occasional chocolate bar — for some people, that is worthy of boundless happiness.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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