Afghanistan-born Fremont man becomes first foreign civilian assisted by veterans group

  • February 2, 2014

By Chris De Benedetti
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group

FREMONT -- A Fremont man has settled into a new life here after a roadside bomb in Afghanistan ended his old one six years ago.

The attack on a U.S. troop convoy killed an Air Force senior airman from Lafayette and grievously wounded his friend, an Afghan interpreter.

Today, with the help of East Bay friends and nonprofit groups, Ahmad Reshad Mushfiq, who lost both legs in the blast, is attending college and setting out to succeed.

Mushfiq, a 32-year-old raised in Kabul, is likely among the first in a wave of Afghan immigrants who will come to the United States when the war in Afghanistan ends after this year as President Barack Obama promised in the State of the Union speech Tuesday. He also is the first foreign civilian adopted by the Sentinels of Freedom, a San Ramon group that helps severely wounded veterans re-establish their lives.

"When I think of the explosion, I don't think of my legs. I just remember I lost my friend Jonathan Yelner," Mushfiq said, referring to the airman. "He left all his comforts in America to help the Afghan people, to make a difference. I can't forget it."

Mushfiq and his wife, Farzana, waited three years for their immigrant visas in Afghanistan, hiding from Taliban forces who had threatened to kill them as traitors who helped the United States.

They were allowed to immigrate to America, where their daughter, Zahra, was born and settled in Fremont.

Soon after, Mushfiq, known to American friends as "Ritchie," contacted Yelner's mother, Yolanda Vega. The two bonded over their shared affection -- and grief -- for Yelner. Mushfiq now calls her "Mom," Vega said.

"He wanted to share with me the Jonathan he knew in Afghanistan, and that helped me understand what my son was like in the war," she said. "He and Jonathan wanted to learn about each other's country and they both found that intriguing."

Fremont social service groups referred Mushfiq to the Sentinels of Freedom, which has helped some 150 U.S. veterans nationwide since it formed in 2003. The group bought furniture for the family, pays the rent on their apartment and helped Mushfiq enroll at Ohlone College.

"The first time I met Ritchie, I was impressed when he told me he didn't want a handout, he wanted to be independent, and I thought, this is a different type of kid," said Mike Conklin, who founded the San Ramon nonprofit group after his son was injured in Iraq.

"He still has an uphill climb, but he is extremely bright and is a top-flight person. I could see him becoming a leader in the Afghan community."

Mushfiq and his wife have green cards that permit them to stay and work here, and they hope to become U.S. citizens. They are not alone.

Just as the Vietnam War's aftermath drew more than 400,000 refugees to America in the 1970s, the end of the war in Afghanistan might send "hundreds or even thousands" of Afghan refugees to the U.S., said Bruce Green, board member of the Afghan Coalition, a Fremont group helping the immigrant community.

"There are a lot of young Afghans working with U.S. forces, and they know they'll be the first targets when the Taliban comes," said Afghan Coalition Executive Director Rona Popal. "That's why we believe that, after 2014, a lot of Afghans will be coming here."

About 90,000 Afghan-Americans live in the United States, with about half of them on the West Coast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The nation's largest concentration of Afghans is in southern Alameda County, said Carl Stempel, a Cal State East Bay sociology professor specializing in Afghan-American research. "The community's cultural center is in Fremont, which has been the most welcoming and supportive," he said.

An Afghan neighborhood has popped up in Fremont's Centerville district, prompting some to dub the area, "Little Kabul." A best-selling 2003 novel, "The Kite Runner," centers on an Afghan man who moves to Fremont.

The city's reputation as an Afghan-American enclave attracts immigrants such as Mushfiq, who has begun work on his own American dream. He said he hopes to earn a bachelor's degree, get a solid job and help his new community -- goals that Mushfiq said his friend Jonathan would have approved.

"I've watched Ritchie embrace this country, work for his family's welfare and address all the issues that come with living in a different culture," Vega said. "But he's just so positive and so anxious to give back; these things don't seem designed to hold him back."

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