UNO staff assistant fulfills American Dream

Photo by Charlotte Reilly

Charlotte Reilly

Parwin Ibrahimi, a staff assistant for the UNO School of Communication, arrived in Omaha with $250 in her pocket and an 11-month-old baby.

Ibrahimi, an Afghan refugee, came to Omaha in September 1982.

“Our son’s birthday was coming in another month, and we spent $100 on that. That’s almost half of what we had,” Ibrahimi said. “My husband and I started our lives here with $150. We never relied on any welfare system. We weren’t used to receiving anything unless we worked for it. That was the mentality. That’s what kept us going.”

Leaving Afghanistan: The 3 a.m. rush

Ibrahimi’s family fled to Pakistan, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. She was nine months pregnant.

“When I was younger, Afghanistan wasn’t so different (from the United States). Girls went to school in mini-skirts,” Ibrahimi said. “When the Russians took over the country, everything changed. The situation started getting worse. People would disappear off the streets. My family decided ‘let’s leave the country.’ We left everything behind.”

One of Ibrahimi’s sisters was a doctor and she had a patient who lived on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The sister contacted the patient, and he said he would take Ibrahimi’s family across the border for money.

First, the family had to get closer to the border, so Ibrahimi’s mother sold her house and went to the courthouse to get cash to pay for the flights.

“Half an hour before the flight, my mom still wasn’t there with the money,” Ibrahimi said. “We were all in distress.”

Her mother came just in time, and they could get on their flight. One of Ibrahimi’s sisters had to stay behind in Afghanistan with the leftover money because they couldn’t take it with them.

“We were told not to bring anything. We were told if you are caught with stuff they will shoot you right on the spot. They actually shot a family five days before we crossed,” Ibrahimi said. “We weren’t able to carry the cash, so one sister stayed behind in case we were sent back.”

Her sister didn’t want to leave with the family because she was searching for her husband who had gone missing. She eventually came to the U.S.

“My sister was beside herself,” she said. “All of my family is gone. I have this cash on my lap, but it means nothing,” Ibrahimi said. “Somehow she managed to put it in the bank. She couldn’t grieve. She had no idea if she would ever see us again.”

The family crossed the border at 3 a.m. They had to dress in burkas and underneath they hid jewelry they could not bear to leave behind.

“Right on the other side, there was a pickup truck waiting for us from the guy who lived on the border,” Ibrahimi said. “The minute we crossed the border we knew the Afghan government couldn’t do anything.”

The next year was full of transitions for Ibrahimi and her family: Ibrahimi’s son was born in Pakistan, the family moved to India while they waited for their U.S. paperwork to be processed, the family arrived in Omaha in 1982.

Financial struggles in the U.S.

“My first job was at A1 Direct Mail and the salary was $3.25 an hour,” Ibrahimi said. “My husband was working three jobs. We only had one beat-up car.”

Ibrahimi decided to apply for a job at UNO because two of her sisters were UNO employees.

She also learned that UNO has a strong relationship with Afghanistan. The Center for Afghanistan Studies was established late in 1972. According to the website, it is “the world’s only permanent research center devoted entirely to the study of Afghanistan’s geography, culture, and people.”

“We learn a lot. We are an academic institution,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies. “We always need to learn more so we have a better outlook, so our students have a better outlook.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies was the only center providing insight into Afghanistan.

“Everyone was looking to us,” Ahmadzai said.

The U.S. military was also looking to Ibrahimi. She was asked to be an interpreter in Afghanistan. She took a leave of absence from UNO and went through military training. She left for her first mission in December of 2002. It was nine months long.

“I couldn’t leave the people alone,” Ibrahimi said. “The need was so huge.”

After she returned to the U.S., Ibrahimi traveled around the U.S. and Middle East as an analyst.

In 2006, she decided to come back to UNO. She felt her youngest daughter needed her.

“I had a priority, my kid was growing up,” Ibrahimi said. “She was five when I started traveling, and 14 when I came back. I’d see her for holidays and quick stays, but it wasn’t the same.”

What “Welcome home!” feels like.

“I always felt UNO and UNMC were my second homes,” Ibrahimi said. “When I came back I didn’t look for a job off campus. I could’ve found a better paying job, but I wanted to feel welcomed.”

Though Ibrahimi feels safe at UNO, she is sometimes confronted with racist comments off-campus.

“I thought about having a college student come stay with me in my house,” Ibrahimi said. “The first thing my neighbor asked me is, ‘what nationality?’ …but I can’t change the way people are, especially nowadays.”

Ibrahimi is thankful her children do not have accents. She hopes they do not have to face the questions she faces constantly, “Where are you from?” Or “what’s that accent?”

“After 40 years, people are still welcoming me to this country,” Ibrahimi said. “I’m like ‘come on people. I own this country as much as you.’ I belong, and I earned that right.”

Paige Toller, the associate professor in the School of Communications, shares an office space with Ibrahimi. She said Ibrahimi’s sense of humor and compassion make work enjoyable, and she is thankful Ibrahimi came to the United States.

“She came to an unfamiliar country, and yet worked so hard to give her kids a good life,” Toller said. “That is the American Dream, and I think it’s really beautiful.”