Courtesy of Fereshteh Ganjavi

Nelofar Sorosh, 26, a medical doctor and the first ever Afghan woman to run a 250-kilometer ultra-marathon, fled Afghanistan with her family last October. 

After more than seven months in Mexico, they crossed the border to the United States as humanitarian parolees. Sorosh then had a year to apply for asylum before her humanitarian parole status expired, all while also having to look for jobs, learn English and get her driver’s license.

In September, Sorosh joined the Afghan Women’s Circle, an initiative run by the New Haven-based refugee education nonprofit Elena’s Light and the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration. On Sunday, Sorosh and 14 other Afghan refugee women graduated from the program and started their next six-month journey with individual mentors.

“I feel ready and excited after the program to explore the new environment,” Sorosh said.

Sorosh joined the program hoping that it would give her support as she looked for ways to sustain her passion for running and her career as a doctor in the U.S. Designed as a five-session, bi-weekly program, the 90-minute support group serves as a safe, confidential space for conversations about personal growth and cultural transition for Afghan women who have recently arrived in the United States. 

The Afghan Women’s Circle, which was launched in September, held its meetings in Westchester, New York, and recruited refugee women who were resettled in adjacent counties. After graduation, each woman will be paired with a female mentor for six months who will continue helping them navigate life in the U.S.

Sorosh told the News that Afghan Women’s Circle helped her connect with people who have been through her situation and have more lived experience in the U.S. She added that she appreciated being able to talk to others in her native language. 

Afghan refugee women frequently endure gender discrimination and lack the resources to overcome language and cultural barriers, according to a joint statement written by WJCI and Elena’s Light. The Afghan Women’s Circle was designed to help them increase their knowledge of opportunities available to them and their families, while providing companionship, mentorship, guidance, psychological support, and language and literacy education.

“We really want to bring this program back to New Haven,” said Elena’s Light founder Fereshteh Ganjavi. “We want to help these women to be ready to find jobs and start a new life here.”

Bringing the initiative back to New Haven

Ganjavi, Schaffer and Jorawar said that they hope to bring this program back to New Haven, where Elena’s Light helped hundreds of refugees last year.

Ganjavi said that she expects to launch a similar program in New Haven in January next year, with a heavier focus on job training. The program will still provide five sessions over 10 weeks and will be taught in Pashto and Dari, the official and most widely spoken languages in Afghanistan.

Considering the larger population of Afghan refugees in New Haven, Ganjavi said that she hopes to maintain the small class size of 15 students to provide enough individual attention but will then repeat the program more often.

Jorawar considers this inaugural in-person program “revolutionary” compared to the other free online classes that Elena’s Light offers on English language learning, driving test preparation and health. Moving forward, she and Schaffer hope that next time the Afghan Women’s Circle program will have more sessions and include even more topics, such as food and nutrition.

Growing strength and building trust

Holly Rosen Fink, the president of the WJCI, recruited refugee women to participate and invited Elena’s Light to design and teach the curriculum. Having worked on refugee resettlement for years, she described the collaboration as a dream come true for her.

Ganjavi said that the goal is to provide participants with tools to help them transition and adjust to the cultural bridge of American life. Topics in the program’s curriculum include motherhood, language acquisition, employment, socialization, cultural competence, women’s health, financial literacy, the driver’s license application process and women’s rights. 

Two staffers from Elena’s Light, Director of Program Development Varsha Jorawar and Director of Health Rachel Schaffer, serve as the primary instructors of the program.

Schaffer described the Afghan Women’s Circle as a process of building trust and learning as a team. She said that at the first session the women were hesitant about the information that the instructors provided, but they gradually became more enthusiastic and started to take pictures of the presentation slides.

“It’s like joining a new school. … It’s kind of like a five-week school, so it can be a lot all at once,” Schaffer said. “I think that we did a good job making them feel comfortable and making a community and really building trust.”

Throughout the five sessions, Schaffer said that she observed that the women began to feel more comfortable speaking up and asking questions about how to deal with situations in their lives.

Jorawar said that sometimes the women might feel uncomfortable practicing new things, such as being vocal about their autonomy and their personal strengths during a self-affirmation activity where they had to say out loud, “I’m strong,” “I’m kind” and “I can do anything that I put my mind to.”

However, Jorawar said, “They all did it.”

“I think the hardest part here being in the US [is that] they come from a country where they don’t usually succeed, and they usually don’t feel seen and heard,” Jorawar said. “But when they move to the US, they have a chance to be an individual and to have their strengths. I think that that’s what they should know and carry that with them throughout being in the U.S.”

Continuing support system

After retiring from her job at IBM after 47 years, Lilian Wu joined the Afghan Women’s Circle as a mentor. As an immigrant from Beijing who moved to Hong Kong, then to Taiwan and finally to the United States, Wu said this is a perfect opportunity for her to give back to the community.

“I feel that I understand how scary it is to be in a country where it’s fun when you’re ready to learn, but it’s so sad to leave your culture.” Wu said. “It’s wonderful to be able to engage in a new culture, but there’s a sadness that you need to handle.”

During the graduation lunch on Sunday, Wu and her mentee Sorosh had started brainstorming how she could continue her medical practice in the U.S. and searching for available online resources for her to learn English.

According to Ganjavi, Afghan Women’s Circle mentors receive a two-hour cultural training session to better understand the Afghan culture that these women come from. They will help them set up goals — whether it is to learn English, find a job or get a driver’s license — and help them to achieve them in the next six months.

After the mentorship, the women will be offered free classes at Elena’s Light for another six months, such as English as a second language and mental health classes.

Elena’s Light was founded in 2017.

Correction, Jan. 8: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Elena’s Light resettled refugees. The article has been updated to more accurately describe the services Elena’s Light provides.