Unbreakable: From refugee to student, and someday to doctor

When the plane touched down in Chicago, the tears seeped from Victoria Salehey’s eyes.

A kaleidoscope of sadness washed over her, welling up from nearly four years of trial. The death threats that forced her to leave her homeland with her young son. The years she spent as a refugee in a country that despised her, waiting for a visa long delayed. The corruption that almost prevented her from leaving at all.

Now, at this moment, she finally felt safe – even as she faced an unfamiliar new life in upstate New York. Her husband planned to join her in a year, a blip of time after all they have been through. But still, she wept – for the last time.

Nearly three years after that last journey, she recounted the story in a measured voice – honest, but alight with energy and intelligence, even as she occasionally searched for words in her adopted language.

Today, Victoria Salehey and her husband, Hekmat Jeehoun, are SUNY Broome students. She is majoring in health sciences, while Hekmat is in Homeland Security. Both plan to graduate in 2017.

In some ways, they may seem familiar faces at a community college, which often draws older students with families, whether they’re seeking to re-tool for a new career or pursue a dreamt-of degree. International students from all over the world and immigrants of all ages are also welcomed into the campus community.

Many students have tales of struggle, of working multiple jobs, dealing with health crises or juggling complicated family situations while pursuing their educational dreams. The challenges faced by Victoria and Hekmat – both from Afghanistan — are of a different magnitude.

A native of Kabul, Victoria lost her father in the war when she was only 10 years old. The war not only shattered her family; it shattered the dreams and hopes of the country’s women, who were forbidden education and livelihoods under the brutal Taliban regime.

“I saw how my mother suffered,” she remembered. “The mujahedeen took over, the Taliban. All the schools for girls closed.”

The regime may have shuttered the schools, but girls’ thirst and drive for education did not dry up. During that dark time, 16-year-old Victoria began writing poems – and meeting secretly with fellow girls to share their interests in what could be viewed as a secret school. After the Taliban were removed from power, Salehey returned to school – eventually becoming a teacher herself. As teachers were in short supply, she first began as a volunteer and ended up teaching math – her favorite subject – for six years.

Along the way, she became interested in politics. During Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban election, she and Hekmat encouraged fellow Afghans to exercise their right to vote. She later joined the Afghan Republican Party, hoping to foster opportunities for women and girls in a country where many had few rights. The party was opposed to such practices as forced marriage, Salehey explained.

Party leaders eventually encouraged Salehey to run for a seat in the provincial election. Although she lost the first election, she agreed to run a second time for the same seat – and ran afoul of the Taliban. At the time she was running her campaign from her husband’s village – where the Taliban backed three of their own candidates.

When the persecution first began, she ignored the threats and continued to serve her people in the best way she could. Then the Taliban torched her office and assaulted a coworker. They learned that Hekmat was working as an interpreter for the Italian and American military – a discovery that put the family in peril.

“Life got very dangerous,” she said. “They asked me to stay away from the position, but I couldn’t because people believed in me. They really wanted to kill me.”

Her party prepared an escape and sent Victoria to India, accompanied by her young son. Originally intending to stay for three to six months, the situation at home remained dangerous and she applied for refugee status. Her husband remained in Afghanistan, continuing his work for the military.

Her troubles were far from over.

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Life as a Refugee

As a refugee and a single woman with a little boy, Victoria Salehey found herself at the bottom of society in New Delhi, shunned and facing the prospect of a different sort of violence. Refugees weren’t permitted to work, had few rights and paid three times as much for electric, rent and the goods of daily life as native Indians. Without a visa, they couldn’t legally rent houses or apartments. Men leered and threatened. There was little Victoria could do save endure.

“People hated me and my son. There was a lot of segregation between foreigners,” she said. “My son suffered a lot.”

Only 4 ½ years old, her son began attending the local school and learning Hindi. He tried to keep his origins hidden; if his peers learned that he was Afghan, they would no longer play with him, he told his mother.

A prize he had won from a local store was revoked once the shopkeeper discovered they were Afghan.  When a 16-year-old boy burned her son’s lip with a cigarette, Salehey called for the police – only to face a different sort of danger. The officer’s voice changed once he discovered her nationality, posing the specter of sexual violence. She refused to give her address and stayed with another refugee family for two nights.

The constant struggle and the separation from her husband began to wear on Victoria’s previously unbreakable strength and determination, and she began to sink into despair. To aid her, Hekmat took leave from his military job and headed to New Delhi. As expected, there were complications; India denied him entry at first, forcing him to obtain a second passport under a different name before they would let him in.

After 3½ years, Victoria received the news she was waiting for: the U.S. Embassy had granted her a visa. Every day for a month, she went to the local government offices to receive her exit visa, which would grant her permission to leave the country. During that month, she spent all day there — from early in the morning to 4 p.m. – and sent repeated emails. She also spoke with representatives at the United Nations, to no avail. She couldn’t understand why the country refused to let her leave.

The deadline approached. On the last day, a man behind her in line —a fellow Afghan – gave her some words of advice.

“They’re asking for money,” he told her. “Pay them $1,000 and they’ll give you the exit visa.”

It proved to be true, and just in time. Victoria and Hekmat gave the officials all they had, as well as their laptop computer, in return for the promised visa – accompanied by the threat that if they ever revealed the bribe, they would never get the documentation they needed to leave.

It was time to go.

Life in America

Hekmat returned to Afghanistan, set to follow his family in another year. Salehey, meanwhile, felt safe in the United States, but the adjustment was a shock; she needed to learn the language, and the culture seemed both new and strange. She remembered one trip to the grocery store with a friend. Dazzled by the array of goods, she couldn’t find naan – a type of bread – until her friend pointed out that it was directly in front of her.

“I feel like a person from a village. I don’t know anything,” Salehey said.

To learn English and integrate into American culture, she began attending classes at the American Civic Association, just up the road from SUNY Broome. While Victoria and her son entered the country as refugees, her husband’s journey to the United States was easier, facilitated by his work for the military.

Salehey needed to live in the country for a year before enrolling in college, a major goal for her. During that year gap, she worked hard to master the language, attending multiple English classes a day at the ACA.

At SUNY Broome, she struggled at first; basic procedures – how to purchase books, how to access online courses – evaded her. But then the Hornet community stepped in. Then-Admissions Director Jenae Norris checked in with Salehey one day, when she saw her sitting outside the library, and learned about her lack of books. She then sent Salehey to Financial Aid for help, which ultimately allowed the new student to purchase her needed classroom materials.

Unfamiliar with the computer system, Victoria ended up failing an online math test, even though she excels in the subject. Her teacher stepped in to help, referring her to the Math Lab. The end result: Salehey passed the test with a 92.5, and followed it up with six online tests, nearly all with perfect scores.

Education has become a family affair; her husband Hekmat, who holds degrees in English and literature in his home country, is also attending SUNY Broome. Their son, now 11 after nearly three years in the United States, is also doing well. A fan of American food and music, he speaks English without an accent, although the family still tries to speak Persian at home so he masters that language as well.

“All the time, I and his dad am teaching him respect for the country, that this is the culture that has accepted you,” Victoria said. “The people in America are very lovely and nice. I love this country. It’s a country of blessing for me.”

Making a Difference

With experience in teaching and politics, Victoria Salehey has dedicated much of her life to making a difference – and particularly for women and girls in Afghanistan. Back in her home country, she sought to find ways women could support themselves in the male-dominated country, rather than be reduced to poverty.

“Women in Afghanistan make carpets, but a man gets it and sells it, and the women can’t access the money,” Salehey explained. “I’d like to have women sell their own products. Women can have value. She has rights, too.”

These days, her interests have shifted. Her goal: to work as a doctor for the Red Cross, and help women in remote areas. Maternal and infant mortality are high in many rural areas, due to the lack of a medical system. Because of cultural constraints, the birth process – and its dangers – are not something a male doctor can share,

“I want to work for the people when I am a doctor. Maybe I can bring change,” Salehey reflected.

The next goal on her journey: medical school. It’s a long way off, but Salehey feels empowered. Standing in a chemistry lab in the Natural Science Center, that dream felt closer – just a little bit out of reach.

“When I go there, I feel like I’m on my path,” she said of her lab.

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