A few months ago, when the woman in the black hijab came down with COVID-19, it was just one more problem, and by her family’s standards, not even a big one.

She, her husband and eight children fled to the U.S. a few years ago, she said in the doctor’s office. Her 18-year-old son translated, and five of her other children clustered around.

They were refugees from Afghanistan, she explained, where her husband worked with U.S. troops. It was dangerous for them there — and is dangerous still, she said. She asked to keep their names and photos out of this story because it would put her relatives’ lives at risk.

When they first reached the U.S., the family stayed awhile in Houston, then moved to Memphis, where her husband had work. She was happy then. She didn’t speak English, and they had little money. Refugee resettlement services, stretched to their limits, couldn’t afford to help any family much. But her husband had work. Her children were in school, with bright futures ahead. And they were all safe, in a country where they were free, where a woman could wear a hijab or not wear a hijab, whichever she chose.

The woman’s 16-year-old daughter, in a pink hijab, shows photos from those days — photos of her dad that she keeps handy on her phone: A moustached man, often with relatives, often looking proud.

He died last year. A heart attack. 50 years old. The daughter looks at those photos often.

The woman is 48 now, but looks older and sad. The daughter says her father’s death has been hard on her mother, harder even than what they went through in Afghanistan. Sometimes, when her mother is missing her father, she passes out, falls down unconscious. Sometimes she goes deaf in one ear.

Unable to bear the Memphis apartment where everything reminded her of her husband, the woman moved her family back to Houston, to a two-bedroom apartment in Gulfton. Six of the kids still live with her, and it’s not much space for them all. When HISD switched to distance learning, all the older kids set up their school-issued laptops in the little apartment’s dining room, with sounds from all those simultaneous classes overlapping, making it hard to think.

On HoustonChronicle.com: How Interfaith’s work with refugees creates new futures

The clinic didn’t test the woman for COVID-19 this summer — those tests are one of the few services it doesn’t provide — but it treated her for it. So she could isolate in the tiny apartment, the children set up a space for her in its front room. The 18-year-old brought her medicine. And naturally, the children worried.

“I do not know what we would do without my mother,” said the girl in the pink hijab, the one with her dad’s photos handy on her phone.

The doctor nodded, and sometimes she asked the woman questions in Farsi. Dr. Forough Farizani had heard most of the family’s story before. This summer, as COVID rampaged through Gulfton, her clinic saw many families struggle with similar challenges.

Farizani and her husband, Hamid Razavi, created Hillcroft Physicians, P.A. to serve what he calls “Houston’s Ellis Island,” the Hillcroft/Gulfton area where so many new immigrants land. The clinic delivers services in 10 languages. It’s on a bus route. It helps new immigrants navigate not just medical conditions and paperwork, but also some of the complexities of life in a strange new land.

In particular, it’s the refugees’ stories that haunt the doctor. Most, she says, have been through war and suffer from severe PTSD. One family she’s seen was forced to watch as its father was decapitated.

Refugees no longer flood into Houston as they did during the Obama administration, but even so, cash-starved resettlement agencies have few resources to offer people like the woman in the black hijab. After a family’s first few months here, federal support for the family runs dry, and refugees are left largely on their own, sink or swim.

On HoustonChronicle.com: This refugee family fled Congo. In Houston they grow organic vegetables.

According to a 2018 report by the Rice Kinder Institute, that’s even more true in Houston than in other cities. “Refugees are forced into rapid employment opportunities at the cost of their long-term health, education and economic stability,” wrote researchers Yan Digilov and Yehuda Sharim. They’re forced to take a job — any job — fast.

After school most days, the woman’s 18-year-old son, now the family’s main breadwinner, works five hours at Walmart. He wishes he had more time to study. Homework requires focus: He’d never spoken English before he started school in the U.S. He remembers how his heart was jumping, that first day in school, how his teacher told him, “Relax. Relax.”

School is important for him, he says, because he wants to become a police officer. His 9-year-old sister wants to be a teacher. The 11-year-old brother hasn’t decided yet.

But the 6-year-old, in a camo T-shirt, doesn’t hesitate. “The Army!” he declares.

To his chest, the boy hugs a refurbished Lenovo laptop — a hand-me-down from the clinic, one of those nonmedical pieces of aid that the doctor provides when she can.

The girl in the pink hijab, and her younger sister, 15, have the same professional goal. When they grow up, they say, they both want to be doctors.

lisa.gray@chron.com, twitter.com/LisaGray_HouTX





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