Meet Abdullah / by Tenley Garrett

He lay on the hospital bed and fidgeted with his hands quietly as I sat beside him. He had suffered a stroke the day before and was unsure when he would return home. Beneath us, three floors down, his 7-month-old son waited in the emergency room as nurses hurried to lessen the pain of a bad fever. A fever of 103 degrees.

Working a 40-hour week is something that Abdullah does with gratitude in his heart and a smile on his face. But getting a job at a Japanese steakhouse just down the road from his home was anything but easy. Before that, numerous employers had rejected him based on reasons he will never understand.

A father of three and happily married, Abdullah saw America as a place where his family could flourish. He knew his children could go to school, that he could one day enter higher education and climb a steep economic ladder propped up by progressive American ideology and capitalist overtones.

Fnu Abdullah came to America on September 1st, 2015. None of us can probably trace our own history back to that day five months ago with enough clarity to recall any of its significance.

But for him, that day marked an end to a long, trying era of endless immigrant paperwork and visa applications. It was a monumental day. But it was also the day that divided him between his American future and everything he had left behind in Afghanistan.

For one, Fnu Abdullah is not Fnu Abdullah. He was given the name “Fnu” upon arrival in the United States as a way to render his title so that it contains both a first and last name. It stands for “First Name Unknown.” This is a generic and common procedure that applies to countless other immigrants.

When Abdullah told me this, I laughed, hardly believing his words. He then said that many immigrants who are processed here in the States are given the birthday January 1st if their actual birth date has not been formally recorded. That’s a lot of people to share a birthday with.

He tells his story with upward inflections that carry his voice toward hopeful endings. But his story carries so much weight that it seems impossible that he’s not moved by his own words. Being one of seven children, five of them girls, Abdullah grew up in a household dominated by estrogen and bound by family togetherness.

His father, a high school teacher, was his closest friend growing up:

“A very good man... He was like a friend, not a father. He was a very good man,” Abdullah said of the man he so admired and respected since childhood.

His father died just a month before he and his family left Afghanistan. His mother now lives alone with his younger sister in the country’s capital, Kabul. Abdullah’s immigration, like so many others, did not happen under peaceful circumstances.

Anyone who claims refugee status has been through screening processes and thorough background checks that include medical examinations and interviews with representatives of both the UN and the U.S. federal government. Kaylee Law of World Relief, a refugee resettlement organization in Durham, says screening is only a minute part of a lengthy process:

"The screening process can take a minimum of 18 months, but we’ve seen people who have waited years to be able to actually come to one of the countries that they’re placed in,” she said.

Clearing all of the checks is no simple task either, as only 1-3% of people seeking refugee status actually get it.

“If at least one has not been passed, they are not granted refugee status,” Law said.

Technically, the textbook definition for someone like Abdullah is not “refugee.” He worked with a program that granted SIV’s (Special Immigrant Visa) to qualified Afghan interpreters who served as allies to American troops overseas.

Abdullah was fortunate enough to come to America not by government force or discrimination, but by choice. But the journey for him wasn’t any less trying.

So what was he escaping if not persecution, war violence, homicide, or government corruption?

“The situation was very bad,” Abdullah said of Afghanistan during the years leading up to his departure. “The Talib, Al Qaeda...,” his voice tapered off as he reminisced on what I could only imagine were unpleasant memories.

Abdullah was not here with me to share a sob story, or to procure excessive sympathy. This was no pity-party. This was one man, having faced immense hardship of every kind, who has come to terms with his present reality and strained from it every ounce of optimism and possibility.

He told his story wearing a thin fabric tunic that seemed rough and rigid against his gentle complexion. He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling between him and the infinite sky above us. The hospital bed seemed comfortable enough, there were little nobs that could be adjusted to correct his posture or allow relaxation of the muscles that tensed.

But his muscles weren’t tense. He lifted the corners of his mouth and radiated delight. The conversation was dense and heavy, but his laughter was weightless and unrestrained.

When comparing his life in Afghanistan to the life he’s known for the past five months, he spoke with his eyebrows slanted forward as though he didn’t know where to begin.

After a pause, he said: “Life is busier here. Busy but also, good, not bad.”

This is Abdullah. I cannot say with any amount of confidence that he has ever spoken a negative or unhappy sentiment. His expression and voice work together in a sort of rhythm that is anything but melancholy. I’m not sure that he’s ever said a bad thing about America, either, although so much of his experience in the States is accented by adversity and misunderstanding.

An immigrant; a foreigner; a sea-traverser; a father; a husband; a friend. People are so much more than the one word we may use to define them. Abdullah is more than the weight that prevents him from earning a stable income and supporting his mother and sister back home. He is a shining, self-sacrificing soul in a restless, limited body. But this is not where his story ends. 

originally published March 3, 2016