My name is Spojmie Nasiri. I am originally from Afghanistan.
I’m a product of the Soviet-Afghan War. I was born in 1975 in Paktia, Afghanistan, a village in a rural area. In 1980 my father fled from Kabul to Germany. My five siblings and I remained with my mother. My father had two wives, which was fairly common in those days. My mother was the first one and then my stepmother. When my father escaped, he escaped with my stepmother to Germany.
About a year or two later my father requested that my siblings and I go join him, but my mother was not able to join because she was considered to be his second wife. There was no avenue for her to come. My mother made the decision to send three of the five kids and I was one of them. I was sent to Germany to be with my stepmother and my father with my older brother and my older sister. That was in 1981. I was about six years old.
We migrated to the United States from Germany in 1982. By then, I had three half-siblings and my older brother and sister. Another one of our siblings joined us so my mother remained with my youngest sibling. I lived a pretty rough life with my stepmother, who was very emotionally and physically abusive to us and also to her own children. A Catholic Church in Orinda had sponsored my family when I came to the US in 1982 and grew up in Concord, California. There was one elderly couple named Mimi and Ralph Metz from the Catholic Church with whom my siblings and I had a very close relationship. They were the parental figures we were missing in our life and helped us with everything including our schooling and finding the legal means to help our mother migrate to the United States. My siblings and I are the product of their unconditional love and support and the reason for who we are today and we owe much to both of them.
Things were tough during my elementary school years. My brother, who at the time was 16, told my father we didn’t want to live with him anymore. My 16-year-old brother, 14 year-old sister and myself (by then I was 10) started living on our own. We raised each other. My dad would come and go whenever he was not working odd jobs day and night to support his family. Years went by; we raised each other; we grew up. Sometimes times were tough. We were almost put in foster care because there was no adult supervision but Mimi and Ralph were there to prevent my siblings and I from being separated.
My mother and a younger sister remained in Pakistan with one of my uncles and lived a difficult life with him and his siblings. Over the years, my older brother visited my younger sister and brother in Pakistan every summer, but I didn’t because I was too young. In 1988, my mother was finally able to come to the US through a refugee program. I was 13 then and had lived for 8 years without her, years when you really need a parent. My older sister had been the caretaker and like a mother figure. She’s only two years older than me. She didn’t get to really do much in high school because she was always the housewife. Her tough childhood never stopped my sister as she continued to focus on her education and eventually she became a physician and now lives with her children and husband in Alabama.
Life was good for me after my mother came. We lived in Concord where I went to high school, then on to college at UC Davis, and then straight to law school. People are always amazed at how my siblings and I made it without any parental supervision. I think a lot of it had to do with God’s will and my mother’s prayers. That’s what kept us intact.
My siblings and I lived a very happy and content life with my mother and cherished every moment we had with her. In 2006, we got devastating news and my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She suffered tremendously physically and emotionally and we were with her every moment until she passed away in 2008. This was around the time I passed the California bar exam and my older brother finished medical school. This was sort of bittersweet because she had suffered so much because of my father and she was supposed to see the fruits of her labor with her kids who she had been separated from for so many years. I have children. As a parent, I can’t imagine sending my kids away like she had to. We never told her how we were abused physically.
My mother was very well known in the community. She was very well liked. When she passed away, there were about 500 people at her funeral.
I went from high school to college in Davis, where I met my future husband and got married in 1998. He attended medical school in the Caribbean and did his residencies in California while I went to law school in San Francisco. While we did our schooling, I stayed with his parents in Fremont and in Union City. I had my children during my first, second and third year of law school. It was a little bit tough, but my in-laws helped me with the children. That’s how I was able to get through law school.
After he finished medical school my husband worked for Kaiser for years. He wanted more. He applied for fellowships in pulmonary critical care at NYU, Harvard and Stanford. Then, when my mother was diagnosed in June of 2006, my husband got a call from UC Davis and they said, “We have an opening for a fellowship … If you forfeit all the other schools, you can come to Davis.” Knowing that my mom was there, he jumped on it and took it. I cared for my mom then, taking her from Davis all the way to Stanford for care.
After my mother passed away, I was all on my own in Davis with a preschooler, a kindergartener, and 1stgrader. My husband was not home often as his fellowship was very demanding and as a result, I couldn’t really work full time because I didn’t want my kids in daycare. I was feeling depressed and angry. My husband urged me to find something to do while the kids were away at school. Since I was a California licensed attorney, I decided to find a volunteer job that would be fulfilling.
After looking for some time, I started volunteering at the UC Davis Law School, one of the only law schools where students can help represent detainees. I helped with immigration cases and represented detainees in the immigration court in San Francisco, California. For almost three years I worked pro bono. I had a bar license so I could represent detainees. I would drive from Davis to Marysville because that’s where they keep the federal detainees in immigration hold. I would meet with the clients. When I needed to go to court, I would drive from Davis to Richmond and then take a BART from Richmond to San Francisco. I fell in love with this work and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I think the gratification came from helping unite families because I had personally gone through it. I knew the sacrifices my mom had made, the separation, and how that impacts a family.
I’ve done a lot of pro bono work representing detainees with the International Institute of the Bay Area, Catholic Charities, Bay Area Legal Aid, Davis Law School, and Stanford Law School. In an immigration court you don’t have the right to an attorney. Without an attorney, the chances of winning, even if you have a good case, are pretty slim.
I still do detained work, but now I do more family-based and deportation cases. There’s something called the “U Visa” for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. I help people apply for this. I have done hundreds of those cases. It is very, very gratifying to be able to get someone that status.
With the last administration, U Visas have gotten much harder. Most of my cases now, especially the U Visas, are getting denied. With the higher risk of being referred to immigration court, many fewer deserving people apply due to the higher probability now of being deported if they do so. I find that legal avenues for helping undocumented immigrants to get legal papers are being closed off. I have many fewer cases.
Another way the Trump administration is preventing an undocumented immigrant married. to a US citizen being granted a hardship waiver to remain in this country. In order to finalize it, you have to leave. First of all, you have to file the petition. Second of all, the hardship waiver has to be granted, which I get every time. Then the third step is the applicant has to leave back to Mexico, say, and then an interview is scheduled to make sure I’m not inadmissible. But as an attorney, I make sure that my client is not an inadmissible. They’ve never claimed citizenship, they don’t have criminal record, they haven’t been deported, they haven’t come back and forth. There are criterias that I screen when we first meet.
If you meet that criteria and then you get the hardship waiver, when you go, for example, to Mexico to do the interview, they’re no longer looking for the hardship to you. That’s been done. What they’re looking for is to make sure you’re not inadmissible for any reason. Usually, my clients tell me, it takes five to seven minutes because I do the case this big. But now, under the Trump administration, they’re picking things like public charge. If you happen to get food from a pantry as a public charge, they can disqualify you.
I am the product of a war and I am a person who came here by chance. Not by political connections, not by money, not by privilege, just by luck. With God’s will and luck I came to the United States. I could have been one of the millions of young Afghan women who get married off at a young age. In my village,my sister and I were the first ones educated. 99.9 percent of those kids, especially girls, do not go to school. Having had the opportunity to come to the United States has given me the ability, the power and the resources to be able to make a change.
In Afghanistan, many girls in the rural villages don’t have the opportunity to be educated. For almost three years now I have been working on a project in Afghanistan (called “We Have Hope Foundation”) to give girls educational opportunities. More than anything, an education is key to improving their lives. I am grateful, first and foremost, to God. Secondly, I am grateful to the families from the church in Orinda that sponsored us and brought us here. We keep in touch with them and they’re just so proud of us.
As an immigrant, you have a passion, a drive that’s unlike any other. And you want to give back. That’s one of the reasons why I did three years of pro bono work. I try to do a lot of mentoring in the community for minority women. Many high school students do summer internships with me. Some decide to become lawyers. One is at UCLA law school right now.
My hope for America is that people realize that this country is built on immigrants, that skin color doesn’t differentiate us, but who we are, what we’re capable of. The backbone of this country is immigrants. My hope for America is that we can overcome this divisiveness and prejudice against someone with a different skin color.
With my kids, 15, 16 and 17 years old, we pray, we fast, and we talk about being who we are. I’ve never shied away from my Afghan identity. My identity, first and foremost, is that I am a Muslim. Second, I’m an Afghan refugee. Having been a refugee with the ability to achieve so much professionally and personally is the most gratifying feeling. To be able to make a change for someone who comes to you for help. Yes, it’s a business. Yes, you get paid for it. But primarily you do it with your heart. I never lose sight of the fact that when someone comes into my office, I am the person that can make a difference in their life.
I am so thankful to the refugee organization in Oakland that arranged to bring my mother here. This feeling never leaves you, to be reunited with your mother. For me personally, that is why I do what I do.