By JESSICA ABLE
Record Staff Writer
June 15 was a special day for Gulalai Wali-Khan. It marked the one-year anniversary of her arrival to the United States and it was a day of celebration for refugees everywhere.
At a June 15 gathering held at Catholic Charities’ St. Anthony Campus on West Market Street, refugees from more than 40 countries were recognized at the annual World Refugee Day celebration.
The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day was dilemma.
“For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse. Many refugees have to decide to stay in a conflict and risked being killed or leave everything behind,” said Darko Mihaylovich, director of Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services during last Friday’s celebration.
“But many refugees, all of them, all of you, come with hope,” he said to the crowd gathered before him. “With hope that you will find peace in your new life. With hope that you will learn English, get a job and become self-sufficient.”
That’s exactly what brought Gulalai Wali-Khan to the Louisville — hope. She said she hoped that by coming to the United States her children would finally be safe.
Wali-Khan was a doctor and an assistant professor of surgery in Peshawar, Pakistan for more than 20 years, and then something unexpected happened — September 11, 2001.
“Nine-eleven happened and a whole lot of things changed in the world,” she said. “It may have changed for America but it changed (for people) all over the world. It changed for me.”
Wali-Khan’s brother is a politician and when his party decided to fight the Taliban, he and his family members became targets of that strict religiously fundamental Muslim organization.
About a year and a half ago, Wali-Khan and her family were at the home of her brother for a celebration when a suicide bomber walked in and blew himself up. While Wali-Khan’s brother was not injured, six guests were killed, including her brother’s personal guard.
Things continued to get worse for Wali-Khan. Four months later as she was leaving her practice, a man shot into her car three times. One bullet hit her arm while the other two missed her.
“At that moment I did not realize but my whole life turned upside down,” she said. “And with that the police came and said I couldn’t work. My children became a target and life became hell. Wherever we went there were guards; there were people to guard us. The children went to school with an armed guard.”
Soon after, her cousin, who was a vice-chancellor at a university in Peshawar, was kidnapped by the Taliban. It’s now been two years and the family does not know where he is.
“That sort of tipped the balance of what I thought was safe. Because once I felt that my children cannot be safe it would be useless to stay here. So I decided that I had to leave,” Wali-Khan said.
Along with her three children, Wali-Khan left her family (including her husband), her job and her country in search of safety and peace of mind.
She credits refugee resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities with making the transition possible.
“If it were not for Catholic Charities I do not think refugees would be able to spend a single day in this country,” she said. “It’s not the stuff they provide, but it’s somebody who can mentor, somebody to go to to ask ‘What do I do now?’
“In an environment that is totally alien to us, they give us so much hope, so much encouragement,” Wali-Khan said.
In the last three decades Catholic Charities has helped resettle nearly 12,000 refugees.
Wali-Khan now works as a medical case worker for the Kentucky Refugee Ministries and hopes to someday be able to return to her home.
“I hope one day all the rubbish of the Taliban will go away and I can just go home and forget about all of it,” she said.