Maria Hekmati returns to her family’s apartment on a beautiful Sunday afternoon carrying a bag of finds at a local garage sale and trailed by sons Kamal, 14, and Komel, 9.
The kids scamper off in different directions while Hekmati joins me and her husband, Ahmad Kambiz, in the living room. She brings a bowl of fruit, two bottles of water and a wide smile. Today was a big day.
Hekmati and her family fled Afghanistan two years ago in fear of their lives because of the attention brought to Ahmad Kambiz’s work with a U.S.-related aide organization. She arrived speaking no English.
On this day, she got to play translator. A widowed woman recently arrived from Afghanistan was at the same garage sale as Hekmati, and she, like Hekmati two years earlier, knew no words in English. Maria Hekmati stepped in and helped the woman with her transaction.
"It was really surprising for me. I thought, ‘OK, we are adapting ourselves to the culture of the United States.’" Hekmati says. "I want to try. I want to learn new things. It is so good for me."
The Hekmati family is part of the Statesman's Season for Caring program, which helps hundreds of families each year through local nonprofit agencies. The Hekmati family was nominated by Interfaith Action of Central Texas (IACT).
Hekmati had few opportunities in Afghanistan, but has made the most of her new life in Austin. She learned to drive and earned her driver’s license. She took English classes at IACT, where she also worked in their childcare program. She continues to take English classes and work towards earning her GED at the Goodwill Excel Center with the hopes of eventually attending nursing school.
"I want to help people, especially older people," she says.
She attends classes in the morning and in the evening is with her four children, as her husband attends work as a corporate security guard. Ahmad Kambiz Hekmati worked for 17 years in aide organizations in Afghanistan and has earned an accounting certificate from Austin Community College and passed the voluntary certification exam from the National Bookkeeper Association in hopes of finding a job in accounting.
A program coordinator at IACT has called the Hekmatis a model for newly settled refugee families. They just need a window of opportunity to open so that they can continue to improve their lives.
The Hekmatis need an accounting job for Ahmad Kambiz; assistance with tuition for Maria to attend nursing school once she achieves her GED; linens for the bunk beds their children share; help repaying their travel loans, a used car so Ahmad Kambiz and Maria can tend to their work and studies in the daytime and be together as a family in the evening; a high-performance blender for cooking; H-E-B and Walmart gift cards; and a vacuum cleaner.
To find out more about the Hekmati family, contact Interfaith Action of Central Texas at 512-386-9145, interfaithtexas.org.