Afghani refugee makes Jewish connection at JFCS

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Concord resident Rahela Pairasta, a refugee from Afghanistan, thought she didn't have much in common with Jews.

But in the last year, since working at Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay, Pairasta has had a change of heart. She now knows there are similarities between her life trials and those of many in the Jewish community.

The atrocities in Kosovo helped bring this home. Jews told her the events reminded them of fleeing from the Nazis. Pairasta said she saw a similar parallel — the Kosovar refugees' plight conjured memories of her escape from Communists in Afghanistan.

Now when the Jewish community stands up for Albanian refugees, she feels proud to be a part of it.

Pairasta, who works in a health program that serves Afghani seniors, is perhaps a strange find in a Jewish agency.

Born in 1950 in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, she was trained as a midwife in her homeland.

After the USSR invaded the country in 1979 and set up a Communist regime bent on using violence to enforce order, Pairasta's father, who worked with some Americans, knew the family was in danger. Soon thereafter, she said, the Afghanistan Communist party killed her nephew.

Pairasta fled with her brother to Pakistan. Hiding jewelry in her pockets, she walked, hitched rides on tractors and rode a donkey to the border with thousands of others fleeing the Communists.

She stayed in Pakistan refugee camps for several years and helped take care of pregnant women. In 1987 she left for America.

After studying to be a medical assistant, Pairasta found a job at JFCS last October as health coordinator. Her job has been to establish the "bridge to health" program which serves mostly Afghani seniors in Contra Costa County. Pairasta estimates that 4,000 Afghanis live in the county.

Funded by a collaborative grant with JFCS and Bay Area Immigrant and Refugee Services, the program brings health professionals, psychiatrists and religious leaders to speak to the seniors. Approximately 100 participate in the biweekly gatherings.

Pairasta worried at first about telling anyone that the Jewish agency was involved in the program. "Most older Afghanis thought the Jews are our enemies," she said.

But when Pairasta assembled the audience for the first meeting, she went ahead and announced the funding sources. "The JFCS wants to help to you," she told them. The audience, she said, then "got really excited."

Now, "they accept it; they don't care. We have religious speakers who say we are all sisters and brothers. God wants us to help each other."

Though the group hasn't yet discussed Kosovo, Pairasta can't get the scenes of displaced ethnic Albanians off her mind.

"When I see Kosovo on TV, I tell my children my story in this way." she said.

"When we fled, the women had to wear a covering from head to toe. We walked through mountains without roads. Kosovo brings back a lot of memories."

Now that she's settled into her job, Pairasta said that at last she no longer feels like a refugee.

Still, she doesn't feel quite at home. And, by extension, she suggests that the Kosovo refugees, even if they return to their land, might feel the same way.

"You feel like you lost everything," Pairasta said. "I still feel like I'm a stranger in this country. I'm not sure this is my permanent place to live."