From refugee to graduate: SUNY Broome couple navigate a new country, a new culture and a new future

Victoria Salehey and Hekmat Jeehoun Zabuhulla

Victoria Salehey and Hekmat Jeehoun Zabuhulla

Excelling in the classroom takes dedication and drive – the willingness to push through challenging moments when time and sleep are scarce, and the work seems as daunting as a mountain trek.

But there comes a moment near the peak – graduation – when the vista unfolds before you. You see how far you have traveled, the obstacles you surmounted, and the opportunities that lie beyond. It’s beautiful, complex and a little daunting, too: one journey ending, and another soon to begin.

“We can’t believe we are graduating and how we put in so much work!” said Victoria Salehey, who is finishing her Associate’s degree – as is her husband, Hekmat Jeehoun Zabuhulla. “For a week, I didn’t go outside because I was catching up on chemistry. Studying for me is very difficult. It was tough; it needed a lot of work.”

Fall 2017 was a busy time for the couple, who are refugees from Afghanistan and now reside in the Binghamton area. Both are finishing their degrees and planning their futures. Hekmat, who holds degrees in English and literature in his home country, finished a degree in Homeland Security and will pursue his bachelor’s degree through SUNY Broome’s partnership with Excelsior College. He’s also seeking a job in his field to support his family.

“As with my experience in the past, I would like to work with the government, somehow, to help by providing a better security environment,” Hekmat said.

Victoria, majoring in health sciences, is transferring to Binghamton University to study chemistry. Her ultimate goal remains the same: press on to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, with a focus on helping women and children.

“Being a doctor is the goal, but it’s a very long way. Right now, I seek a four-year degree,” she explained. “From there, I will see if I can attend medical school or become a physician assistant. I am still really determined to become a doctor.”

She has held this dream close since her harrowing escape from the Taliban, her time as a refugee in India and her eventual arrival in the Southern Tier, where she was joined by her husband, who had worked as an interpreter for the Italian and American military. You can read more about their moving story and how they came to the Southern Tier in this 2016 interview.

Outside of the classroom, Victoria and Hekmat also expanded their family, welcoming a baby boy early in the fall; he joins their now teenage son, who has adjusted to life in America.

Life is busy and full, but also full of blessings – the kindness of professors and others who helped them on their journey, and continue to show support.

“I think college is a good community, especially for the immigrant or the refugee,” Hekmat said.

“For everyone!” Victoria added.

Challenges and helping hands

It can be difficult to adjust to life in a new country – even when you know the language. For one, the dialect of English Hekmat and Victoria learned in Afghanistan differs from American English; the two took language classes at the American Civic Association to become more fluent. American accents also vary state by state, which can make them difficult for newcomers to negotiate.

“When you go to another new country and new environment, it’s like going to China or Japan, where you don’t know the language,” explained Hekmat, who had worked as a translator for seven years in Afghanistan. “Everything is new for me.”

And even more than the language, the culture is different – often in ways that native-born Americans might not realize. Consider elders, who in Afghanistan are given deference and often invited to go first in many situations. In the United States, some people may view such practices as condescending or even as age discrimination.

Sometimes, the cultural knowledge gap may make immigrants a bit more reticent. “We would like to do the good things, but sometimes we’re hesitant of offending people,” Hekmat explained.

College seemed to be the logical step in acclimating to their new environment – and in preparing for the work world. When he arrived in the United States, Hekmat applied for jobs of all kinds, but lacked the documented work experience he needed to land a job. His job history and academic credentials from Afghanistan didn’t apply, he found.

“College and school are a good starting point to become familiar with everything in the new environment,” he said. “This was a good chance for us. We had great experiences with professors.”

He credited Criminal Justice & Emergency Services professors James Sheerin, Kerry Weber, Trevor Peachey and Michael Washington for their help and their dedication to students. Others, too, have played important roles, and Hekmat and Victoria are grateful for all the help they have received to achieve their goals and forge a new life in America.

“When I want to know something and I ask them, they give me a very good and knowledgeable answer,” Hekmat explained. “As we have found, most of the people we know are very helpful. They do whatever they can do to help you. They try to help and give you information. We appreciate those people.”

Looking back, Victoria wonders sometimes how she found the confidence to go to an especially tough class. She remembered being so busy that she didn’t visit downtown for almost a year.

How do they stay motivated?

“It is the goal: Believe and trust in yourself. Trust in yourself and go ahead,” Victoria answered. “We have energy to go forward. It’s not easy, but it is possible.”

It can be tough to juggle responsibilities and dreams – and harder still when you’re worrying about family members half a world away and a homeland still afflicted with turmoil. Still, Victoria and Hekmat try their best, both in the classroom and in the larger world.

“I want to be a useful person,” Victoria said.