SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) — Over the past 365 days, life has changed dramatically for Suliman Dawood.
Once a rising soccer star in Afghanistan, the 21-year-old now serves falafel, lamb shawarma with white sauce and his mother’s famous bean soup at ZamZam – an unassuming little restaurant at the back of the Harry’s Market in Santa Rosa.
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Suliman and his family are among thousands of Afghan refugees who fled to northern California after the Taliban invasion of Afghanistan a year ago. They relocated to Santa Rosa to be with their brother, Roman Zemari, who is an American citizen.
“The first time they came, 11 people were living in a room with me, including my pregnant sister,” Zemari recalled to ABC7 News.
The family slowly begins to find some stability. A local church helped them find a new temporary home.
But their escape from Afghanistan still haunts them.
As they tried to reach the airport, Taliban shrapnel rained down on them. Amid the chaos, their sister and her two children were separated from other family members and never made it out. Dawood and Zemari’s mother is still in tears thinking of her daughter and grandchildren.
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“She says even though I’m in the United States, nothing makes me happy if I don’t see all my children with me,” said Zemari, translating for her mother, Zakia Sayed Osman, who was wiping away tears.
And this family is not alone.
According to the International Rescue Committee, which has relocated around 3,100 Afghan refugees to northern California since the Taliban invasion, many families have been separated.
“We are certainly hearing from families trying to get back on their feet here in the United States, to move on with their lives, to give their children the chance they need to move forward, but also with very strong ties in Afghanistan with family members who didn’t make it,” Tara Rangarajan, IRC’s executive director for Northern California, told ABC7 News.
Rangarajan said they had clients who made the risky decision to return to Afghanistan to try to bring back other family members still living there.
“It’s a very divisive situation,” she said. “People who are trying to pick themselves up, who are trying to make a living here, but who also have a lot of heart in Afghanistan with people who couldn’t make it and who are trying to do everything they can. to help make that happen.”
In the case of Zemari, he says he tried every possible way until he returned to his country of origin. He contacted senators and the office of his representative in Congress, Mike Thompson.
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Meanwhile, Zemari’s brother, Dawood, also found the transition to his new life in the Bay Area difficult. Until his departure from his home country, he played for the Afghanistan national football team. Those dreams are now dashed.
“For Afghans, he was a famous guy,” Zemari said of his brother, explaining that people used to ask him for signatures and photos.
“I want to play football,” Dawood said via translation, “And there’s no team or place I can find here.”
But, like so many immigrant families, they are now finding a new purpose through food with the family’s new halal restaurant. They decided to open ZamZam after struggling to source halal food in Sonoma County. All of their recipes come from their mother and Zemari’s wife, Sidai.
“It was something that opened a door for us,” Zemari said.
“Sitting at home is the worst thing, but now I’m so happy to work here, keep myself busy and find new friends,” Dawood added.
While ZamZam is small now — only doing take-out orders and DoorDash — the brothers have big dreams. They say their hope is to expand beyond the market to become a true fast food place where people can socialize and congregate.
“In time, God willing, we will have our own place,” Zermari said.
They also dream that one day their sister will also join them.
“I hope she knows we still care about her,” Zemari said. “We are doing our best to get her out of this situation.”
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