Pretty much every item in the modest Silver Spring apartment Baktash Amini shares with his wife, Maryam, and their two young kids has been donated: the table and chairs, sofas, bedroom furniture, even the television hanging from the wall. One notable exception: a white toddler-size Bentley sports car covered in stickers that sits on the floor next to one of the sofas.
Maryam found it by the apartment complex’s trash dumpster and carried it up the two flights of stairs to their apartment. She knew their 3-year-old son, Mehran, would be pleased. “I say [to Mehran], ‘I buy for you,’ ” she explains in broken English.
Three years ago, Baktash was a bit of a celebrity in the couple’s home country of Afghanistan. An on-air music and television presenter with Radio Free Europe, he had a loyal following and a generous salary. His brother was a well-known Afghan television news anchor; Maryam was a stay-at-home mom to Mehran and his sister, Marwa. Baktash’s parents and all five of his sisters were teachers—his mom taught at a nearby school for girls.
In Afghan culture, sons live with their parents their whole lives; when a daughter marries, she moves in with her husband’s family. So Baktash, Maryam and their children lived in a spacious five-bedroom apartment in central Kabul, the Afghan capital, with his parents and his brother. Baktash’s sisters, all married, lived with their husbands’ families nearby.
“We were so happy,” because there was peace in Afghanistan, Baktash says. “We go to school and continue our…studying. We go to university. We start our jobs…we have hopeful dreams in our minds.”
Then everything changed.
Today, Maryam works as a cashier at a fast-food kebab restaurant in downtown Bethesda. Baktash drives six days a week for DoorDash in a 2017 Toyota Corolla that he purchased with money lent to him by friends. His brother, like many other Afghan journalists in his home country, is dead—the circumstances shrouded in mystery.
Most of the rest of Baktash and Maryam’s families remain in Afghanistan, where, under Taliban rule, women cannot work, or even leave their homes without a male escort. Their homeland is now plagued by malnutrition, a failing economy and widespread power outages, according to news reports. Baktash is hesitant to speak about his family’s lives there now, or whether there’s a possibility that they too might eventually get out.
Baktash and Maryam, both 33, are among the approximately 900 Afghan refugees who have settled in and around Montgomery County since August 2021, according to U.S. State Department data. That’s when the Taliban took control of Kabul and the U.S. pulled the last of its 13,000 troops out of Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal left the Taliban in charge of the country for the first time since the U.S. toppled the Islamic fundamentalist regime in 2001, shortly after 9/11.
Since the Taliban’s return to power, the American government has helped more than 75,000 Afghan refugees flee their country and settle in the U.S., according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It reports that California, Texas and Virginia top the list of U.S. states that have taken in the most Afghan refugees. The state department ranks Silver Spring 15th in the nation among U.S. cities where Afghan refugees have settled.
The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is a popular destination for Afghan refugees because of the substantial Afghan community already here, says Ruben Chandrasekar, director of the Silver Spring office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). His organization partners with about a dozen local charitable groups—including Landover, Maryland-based Homes Not Borders—to provide incoming refugees with furnished apartments, access to food and medical care, cellphones, and English-language and vocational training.
Some groups, like Brooklyn-based Emma’s Torch, have expanded into the D.C. area because it’s bursting with new refugees eager to learn marketable skills and start businesses. Entrepreneurship among refugees is nearly 50% higher than among people born in the U.S., according to the IRC.
In August 2022, Emma’s Torch partnered with another organization to start a pilot program out of the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring. The program offers refugees a 10-week paid apprenticeship program with up to 400 hours of culinary training. Maryam completed the program in December. “There is such an amazing community trying to support people who are arriving, and we felt like hopefully we could play a role in that,” says Kerry Brodie, the organization’s founder and executive director.
Now Baktash and Maryam are taking a class run by Let’s Chow, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that teaches the ins and outs of running a food-truck business. The class provides participants with a stipend of about $15 per hour and is open to all veterans, military spouses and military-connected civilians who have been granted refugee status in the U.S. Maryam and Baktash are eligible thanks to Baktash’s former job at Radio Free Europe. Three of their classmates are the spouses of interpreters and translators who assisted the Americans in Afghanistan. “Those people who risk their lives to serve alongside the U.S. military, they deserve all the benefits our program offers,” says Jordan Foley, a U.S. Naval officer who is Let’s Chow’s founder, CEO and head chef.
The Aminis hope to soon be operating a truck of their own that specializes in foods that remind them of home: savory Kabuli pulao, ashak and mantu dumplings—and baklavaand rice pudding for dessert. Let’s Chow already has helped them design their food truck’s logo: an ornate gold “MB”—their initials. “Maryam,” Baktash says, “is a very good cook.”
The couple have already been hired for several catering projects, mostly for American friends they’ve made since they’ve arrived. “American people, they really, really like our food,” Baktash says. While he’s out on Door Dash deliveries, Maryam is planning the food truck’s menu and logistics, working her cashier job and honing her English, which she says is “very difficult.” She tries to keep busy, she says, so she doesn’t dwell too much on the family she left behind: her parents and five brothers, all of whom are still in Afghanistan. “When I stay at home, I am very upset,” she says. “I miss my family every day.”
The Aminis’ circuitous journey to Montgomery County began nine months before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. In December 2020, Baktash’s brother, Fardin, died in what was first reported as “a mysterious attack” that was later amended by the Afghan government to be called a “suicide by cutting his neck with a sharp edge stone,” according to Afghanistan’s largest news agency. Fardin’s family and friends, including Baktash, believe he was murdered, though no group stepped forward to take credit for his death. He died one day after another well-known television news anchor was gunned down and killed.
Within six months of these homicides, at least seven more Afghan journalists were murdered, according to news reports. Many of the deaths were blamed on the Taliban. Fardin’s death, says Baktash, “was the start of a serial killing [of] a lot of journalists by different methods.”
As a member of the media—particularly one who worked at an organization linked to the United States—Baktash was considered by the Taliban to be a spy for the Americans, he says. Shortly after Taliban rule resumed, his supervisors at Radio Free Europe offered to help him and others working for the organization obtain the visas and other documents they and their families would need to get out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan; from there they could make their way to other countries if they wished.
“America was always my dream country,” Baktash says. He grew up watching Hollywood films and says, “Titanic is my favorite.”
But without his employer’s connection to the U.S. government, he and his family wouldn’t have been able to escape, he says. “My parents told me, ‘Please leave Afghanistan; we don’t want to [lose] you—we have [only] one boy…alive.’ ”
Baktash was instructed to pack a single suitcase for his family of four and be ready at a moment’s notice to leave the country for good. In October 2021, two months after the Taliban returned to power, he got a late-night phone call telling him to head to Kabul International Airport with his family early the next morning.
The Aminis flew to Pakistan and spent a week at a military camp in Islamabad, followed by a month in a camp in Qatar, and then more than three months in a refugee camp on the grounds of FCI Fort Dix, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ minimum security correctional facility in southern New Jersey.
“Six thousand people stay in camp, and in one tent 100 people,” Maryam recalls of the New Jersey camp. There were five toilets and five showers for all 100 to share; and though partitions gave each family some degree of privacy, there was no ceiling other than the tent cover, so the noise was unbearable, she recalls.
“We don’t have clothes, but one day [volunteers] came and brought coat[s] and shoes. ‘If not your size or not, no problem, just wear that,’ ” the volunteers told the refugees, Maryam says.
At the camp, Baktash was asked to fill out a form naming a first, second and third choice of locations in the U.S. to make his permanent home. Since he didn’t know anyone in the U.S.—nor the names of most of the states—he picked Maryland as his first choice because some of his colleagues had connections here. After one wrote on his form the address of a family member in Bethesda, Baktash wrote the same address on his form. When he learned he had gotten his first choice, his friends told him he was lucky, he says.
On a Saturday evening, nearly a year after making Silver Spring their new home, Baktash has finished his DoorDash deliveries for the day and heads upstairs to his family’s apartment. Mehran—who had been practicing his hip-hop moves while watching a music video on the television—runs to the door to greet him.
Marwa, the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, sits on the sofa nearby, trying one last time to get her broken Chromebook to turn on. Of all the things she had to leave behind in Afghanistan, Marwa says she misses “Stuffy” the most—the stuffed yellow bunny rabbit she got when she was a baby.
Now a first grader at Rosemary Hills Elementary School, Marwa says a few other Afghan refugee kids attend the school, but she rarely speaks with them. They generally want to use the languages they spoke in Afghanistan, she says, and she wants to speak English. She’s mostly mastered it in the short time she’s lived here. “Kindergarten was a little bit hard,” she says, “but now it’s good.”
Baktash takes a seat next to his daughter. Maryam is in the kitchen fixing tea for him and starting the family’s dinner. “We [moved] from a poor at-war country to a good country,” Baktash says. “A new home, a new culture, a new country, a new flag, a new people…and we [are] happy.”
Journalist Amy Halpern has worked in print and television news and as the associate producer on an Emmy Award–winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.
This story appears in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine.