May 21, 2014 at 8:12 am

Laura Berman

Search for safe haven leads Afghan family to Detroit

Bakht Nazira's daughter showcases earrings her mom made and sells to support her family. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Kabul to Detroit is never a direct flight.

Only four years ago, Bakht Nazira was celebrated in American newspaper and magazine articles as a face of a new, progressive Afghanistan. She was at once entrepreneur and missionary, helping impoverished widows — forbidden by tradition to go even to the market by themselves — earn livelihoods from their homes. In Kabul, she and her husband Khan worked together in a thriving jewelry business, employing as many as 200 workers.

“I wanted to help the women from my village, the widows, who are not allowed to work,” she explained recently, in the family’s rented townhouse Downriver. The couple had disturbed the status quo in the tradition-bound region where they lived, again and again. Khan had allowed his wife, only 16 when they married, to complete her high school education, as she asked.

“Especially for my tribe, they are very traditional. They don’t want girls to go out of the house ... if you’re different, then people don’t like you,” says Nazira, who is 36, and the mother of four daughters.

But in the fall of 2011, Khan was in New York trying to establish business connections in the United States when he got a phone call from his brother. “Don’t come home,” he was told. “You will be killed.”

Thus began the end of the family’s life in Afghanistan and a desperate rush to resettle in the United States, as the political situation deteriorated around them. Overnight, Khan (pronounced “Hon”) lost his livelihood and his identity as a businessman. Suddenly, he was alone in a strange land seeking political asylum, while his wife and children lived in hiding in Kabul, their lives also at risk.

Freedom House in Detroit, a nonprofit that provides a temporary home and legal assistance to political refugees from around the world, made space for Khan, 49. While it is an obscure charity in Detroit, Freedom House is known among political refugees as a safe haven for those fleeing oppression around the world. So it was with Khan. An acquaintance in New York told him: “If you are looking for a place to protect you, that is Freedom House.’ ”

After winning legal asylum in the United States in 2013, he was legally free to bring his wife and four children here. They arrived last fall. But for now, there is no happy ending. Their lives here are financially precarious and uncertain, as they struggle to begin anew. Two of their children are in public school; the older two are studying English and hoping to go to college. Khan suffered a stroke while living at Freedom House, and can no longer work.

Nazira, featured in 2010 as one of “Afghan Women Rising” in a Ms. Magazine article, is trying to rise again, in a new land. She is taking English lessons three times a week. Her jewelry is being sold at Marlee’s in Twelve Oaks Mall, where a benefit for Freedom House was held recently, and co-owner Leora Tapper says the store will continue to carry her traditional jewelry, handmade in Afghanistan, embedded with semi-precious stones.

“We saw what wonderful people they are and what a compelling story they have and we would like to help them any way we can,” says Tapper.

Kelly AuBuchon, senior attorney at Freedom House, agrees.

“Like others at Freedom House, they are the movers and shakers of their countries,” AuBuchon said. “These are people who stood up for what they believed was right. They should be rewarded for their bravery and their struggle.”

In the United States, no one is killed for educating their daughters, or helping widows find dignity and the capacity for survival. It is difficult to even imagine what they have fled. But it is instructive to remember that their arrival, with nothing but determination, love and faith, is an essential and timeless American story.

Bakht Nazira's traditional jewelry, handmade in Afghanistan, is being sold ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)