Hawa Haidari speaks of her experience working with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan.

Hawa Haidari speaks of her experience working with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. (VOA/YouTube)

(Tribune News Service) — For six years, Hawa Haidari would wake up, pull on her camouflage uniform and tuck in the black hijab that framed her face before starting her day in what was called "the female tactical platoon" of the Afghan army.

Put another way: the 27-year-old Haidari worked with U.S. Special Forces to hunt terrorists. Haidari played the critical role of questioning women and children who, because of cultural barriers, were unable to speak with military men.

Today, Haidari suits up for a different life.

Most mornings, she dresses in black pants, a button-up shirt and a jacket with the Panda Express restaurant logo. Then she walks out of the tiny North Spokane apartment she shares with her three younger sisters and heads to the bus stop to start her long trip to work.

In hopes of finding a better-paying job and continuing her schooling, Haidari recently completed a driving course through Thrive International, a local nonprofit that serves refugees. Now with her permit in hand, she's just waiting to get behind the wheel to practice.

But Thrive doesn't have a car.

An unconventional warrior

When she was a little girl, Haidari's parents moved to Kabul in hopes of giving their six children a better life.

Unlike in their small town, girls were often allowed to finish high school in the large capital city. During Haidari's last year of school, military recruiters came to her class, including a few women in uniform, encouraging the girls to join the army.

The military is viewed as "a man's job," Haidari said, especially with so many restrictions on women's daily lives.

Seeing the women in uniform ignoring those cultural norms inspired Haidari.

"This is exactly what I want," she remembers thinking.

Her parents initially weren't supportive, but Haidari signed papers anyway and left for six months of training in Turkey. Her family came around eventually, especially when Haidari explained she hoped to help make ends meet with her paycheck.

Haidari was selected for the Female Tactical Platoon and trained by U.S. Special Forces. Her unit worked alongside American troops, with Afghan women like Haidari questioning the women and children they encountered.

She rose through the ranks over the course of her six years in the platoon, eventually being promoted to second in command shortly before the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover.

As her friends in the U.S. military pulled out of the country, Haidari rushed to the Kabul airport, hoping to leave even without the proper paperwork. She along with two of her sisters were able to flee with the help of her American friends.

A new life

Haidari arrived in the United States in August 2021. At first, she was sent to an Air Force base in Wisconsin where she stayed for three months until she could contact her brother-in-law who lives in Spokane.

He and his wife encouraged Haidari and her sisters, including a third who followed Haidari out of Afghanistan, to come to Spokane.

The three younger sisters, now ages 22, 19 and 18, arrived not long after and were given an apartment through World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency.

At first, all the sisters enrolled in English as a second language courses at Spokane Community College, but it was a difficult trek to get to the campus via bus. The commute took up precious hours Haidari could be working, she said.

Currently, she's taking two quarters off school to pick up more hours at Panda Express while her youngest sister finishes high school.

Her future is uncertain as the women wait for a determination on their asylum applications. Despite working directly with U.S. special forces, Haidari doesn't qualify for the special immigrant visas given to Afghans who worked for the military as translators or fixers.

Driving to freedom

As more Afghan and Iraqi refugees arrive in Spokane, Sajda Nelson, a program coordinator at Thrive and an Iraqi refugee herself, saw a huge need for a class to teach women how to drive.

Women aren't encouraged to drive in many Middle Eastern countries, Nelson said. When they arrive in America, "driving isn't a priority" for many women.

Their husband or father will likely be the only one to get a license, which leaves the rest of the family reliant on him. If kids have a doctor appointment or school event, often the man of the family has to take time off work to drive them, causing a financial strain, Nelson said.

Women also don't have a baseline of driving skills from back home, unlike refugees from other countries. There's a language and a financial barrier to taking classes at a traditional driving school, she added. So Nelson started driving classes at Thrive with the help of Spokane Police Sgt. Theresa Fuller.

Fuller taught six women the basics of traffic safety over the course of a few weeks. The women then took their driver's exam.

"It was great. It was a really fun class," Fuller said. "For me, it's helping them stay as safe as they can now that they're in a new country."

Some of them, like Haidari, had to take it a few times. In Eastern Washington, the exam isn't offered in Farsi or other languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there aren't any certified translators, leaving some women with no choice but to go to Seattle for the test, Nelson said.

Once they have their permits, the women need time behind the wheel, Nelson said.

Nelson has a whole list of volunteers signed up ready to supervise practice driving sessions, but Thrive doesn't have a car for the women to drive. The nonprofit needs to own a car outright for insurance purposes and to install a second brake on the passenger side for safety, Nelson said.

New drivers who spend time practicing outside of the classroom are much less likely to get into crashes than those who jump straight in to driving on their own, Fuller said.

Despite the 20-person wait list for the next session of driving classes, Nelson is waiting to start a new group until Haidari and her classmates can get some time on the road.

"We're just waiting for a car," Nelson said.

Haidari is hopeful she'll get her license soon, which would allow her to resume English classes, start looking for a better job and return to her favorite hobby, boxing. She hopes other women follow suit and learn to drive, improving their lives one freedom at a time.

"There are a lot of women like me just waiting for driving lessons," Haidari said.

(c)2023 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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