From left: San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar, Joe Goldman, Dr. Wessal Mukhtar and Robin Mencher on a panel about problems facing refugees in the U.S. at Manny's in San Francisco, March 23, 2023. (Photo/Lillian Ilsley-Greene)
From left: San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar, Joe Goldman, Dr. Wessal Mukhtar and Robin Mencher on a panel about problems facing refugees in the U.S. at Manny's in San Francisco, March 23, 2023. (Photo/Lillian Ilsley-Greene)

Refugee at Manny’s: In Afghanistan he was a doctor. Now he struggles to pay rent.

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In Afghanistan, Dr. Wessal Mukhtar was a successful doctor for 20 years. After coming to the United States 10 months ago, he and his family have struggled just to pay rent.

Mukhtar was among the panelists in San Francisco last week for a program titled “Refugees in the Bay Area: Welcoming Our Neighbors,” held at the Mission District community space and café Manny’s.

Members of the local immigrant community and their supporters gathered to tackle questions of resettlement, immigration policy and how Bay Area residents can best help their new neighbors, and the space was filled to capacity as Mukhtar told his story.

Along with his wife and six children, Mukhtar fled Afghanistan in March 2022 after the fall of Kabul seven months earlier.

After arriving in San Francisco, the Mukhtars were helped by Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, which helped them secure housing, jobs and schools for the children. But complications and hardship soon followed. Despite his education, Mukhtar cannot practice medicine due to visa regulations; he cannot buy a home with no credit history in the U.S.; and two months ago, his youngest daughter passed away.

“I have to be strong,” Mukhtar told the audience. “I am here in this region [so] my children can grow.”

San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar, a Jew from El Salvador who emigrated in the 1980s to escape civil war, hosted the panel, which also included Joe Goldman of HIAS (a Jewish nonprofit that aids refugees and asylum seekers) and Robin Mencher, CEO of JFCS East Bay.

I think Jews understand more than most people the harm that occurs when refugees are not welcome.

State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco dropped in before things got underway to shake hands and promote his recently proposed State Senate Bill 85, which would grant refugees and asylum seekers an additional 90 days of case management support on top of the 90 days given by current policy.

The work of immigration reform, Wiener said, is intimately tied to his Jewish identity.

“I think Jews understand more than most people the harm that occurs when refugees are not welcome,” Wiener said.

Many of the hardships faced by refugees like Mukhtar and his family are the direct result of United States policy, Goldman pointed out.

He said that HIAS — which considers itself the world’s oldest refugee agency and was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1902 — is heavily involved with not only resettlement, but also with advocating for legislation that would make things easier for refugees seeking to enter the country. Goldman encouraged the crowd to get involved in local politics, contact representatives and advocate for change.

State Senator Scott Wiener speaks to the audience at the March 23 event at Manny's about SB85. (Photo/Lillian Ilsley-Greene)
State Senator Scott Wiener speaks to the audience at the March 23 event at Manny’s about SB85. (Photo/Lillian Ilsley-Greene)

“We should be welcoming far more people into California,” said Goldman, community engagement director for the Western region of HIAS.

Mencher praised the work JFCS East Bay is doing on the ground to help refugees after they arrive in the Bay Area. The agency’s mission is to help those in need “flourish with dignity,” a process that is different for every family, she said.

Over the course of the event at Manny’s, which is owned by “Manny about town” Manny Yekutiel, it became clear that, despite the efforts of agencies such as HIAS and JFCS, much is still needed when it comes to a family like the Mukhtar family.

When asked what he wanted to leave the audience with, Mukhtar, through a translator, said that although the assistance he has received has been life-changing, there need to be more resources for families like his.

“[I want] the government as well as these organizations to look into the possibilities of increasing these services, furthering the assistance programs and helping refugees,” Mukhtar said.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.