By Curt Peterson
About two years ago, Ashuquallah, a former interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, arrived in Hartland hoping to be reunited with his wife Soma and to start a new life. Their saga and successful integration into the community were celebrated Sunday during the First Universalist Society of Hartland’s weekly service.
The pews were packed, and a luncheon served in the basement meeting room, which featured some Afghan cuisine, was crowded with happy celebrants.
“Ash”, as he is called, first met John Bassette’s son, John Jr., at Fort Bragg during a training program, and later turned to him following his escape during the collapse of Kabul as the Taliban expelled Western military forces. Bassette and his father, John Sr., and another Hartlander, Matt Dunne, assisted Ash’s eventual immigration to Vermont, and, with support from Upper Valley Haven, set up the Afghan Relief Fund, a non-profit organization to assist Ash and other Afghan refugees.
According to Sue Taylor, there are 260 Afghan refugees in Vermont, and the state is open to welcoming more.
Ash lived with John and Donna Lee Bassette for six months and many in the Hartland community helped him get established, including ad hoc driving instructor Andy Kelley.
“It may have taken a year off Andy’s life teaching Ash how to drive,” John Bassette said. But his help allowed Ash to passed on his first try.
Community contributions helped provide Ash with housing and furnishings, and funded legal fees and travel expenses necessary to enable Soma, who had escaped Taliban detention, to join her husband here eight months ago.
Ash wants to follow in his father’s footsteps in a medical career. While working as medical assistant at Central Vermont Medical Center he was taking courses to qualify for an 18-month accelerated registered nurse training program at Norwich University. His current five-course schedule precludes working until he successfully completes the RN program.
Soma is learning English and studying math. She, too, has aspirations for a medical career.
Ash and Soma are not complacent as beneficiaries of community support —wanting to “give back,” they have both been volunteers for flood relief projects in Montpelier, and at a food bank, and Ash, who knows all the Afghan languages and dialects, volunteers as an interpreter for other refugees arriving in Vermont.
The community’s positive and welcoming support for Ash and Soma, Bassette said, “demonstrates what our country can be.”