Of the thousands of servicemembers who have welcomed and helped Afghan evacuees, Staff Sgt. Laura Mardukhayeva can probably relate to them more than most.
A supply sergeant currently deployed to Kuwait with the Vermont-based 424th Engineer Company in support of Operation Spartan Shield, Mardukhayeva emigrated from Russia to America as a child and vividly recalls the challenges of being a stranger in a new land.
To help make the transition easier for Afghan evacuees during their brief stay in Kuwait, Mardukhayeva volunteered her own time after the duty day to comfort the children and to help other Soldiers assigned to Task Force Freedom tasked with welcoming, processing, and housing approximately 5,000 at-risk Afghans.
On a particularly busy night during the operation, Mardukhayeva was running from Soldier to Soldier, offering them snacks.
“Lifesaver for a life saver?” she asked, as she reached out toward a Soldier, a palm full of the round pieces of candy in her hand. As the Soldier took one and thanked her, Mardukhayeva darted toward another Soldier before turning her attention to the children.
“I only have so many hours off, but I am still going to be out here,” Mardukhayeva said.
“Whatever we’re going through – it may be hot, we may be away from our families or maybe we’re not having a good day – there are thousands of people who are losing their homes and their cultures so they can have freedom.
“As a Soldier, I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t want be a part of something as important as this,” she said.
While her volunteerism is deeply rooted in the mindset of a Soldier, her understanding of the evacuees’ experience of having to leave behind all they know came from her own experience as a child when, at 6 years old, she left Russia to come to America.
“My family came to America with nothing,” Mardukhayeva said. “They found help, not just in terms of opportunities and material things, but also guidance. They were shown how to do new things – how to create a new world for our family. I am so grateful for that and want for the evacuees exactly what my family got.”
Despite her enthusiasm and excitement for the evacuees’ new opportunities, Mardukhayeva said she understands that safe passage doesn’t mean a storybook ending. Just like her parents, who financially struggled at first, so will the evacuees when they first arrive in America. Much like she did, the children she comforted will struggle as they settle into their new environment.
“I remember being that kid and coming to America – the language barrier brings back a ton of memories,” she said. “I was six. No one understood what I was saying. I might have needed water or food or to use the bathroom. Particularly with kids, that frustration can turn into anger really quickly.”
Even with the language barrier, Mardukhayeva could sense kindness when she experienced it, and she tried to provide the same for the evacuees she met.
“You don’t need to share the same culture or language to communicate kindness,” she said, adding that for some parents, even receiving something as simple as a diaper for their child brings about sentiments that span cultural and language boundaries.
Although an overwhelming majority of evacuees have been treated with kindness, Mardukhayeva said she knows from experience that such treatment won’t always be the case when they finally settle at their destination.
“There’s going to be people who are not going to be kind, and there’s going to be people who are not going to take you seriously,” she said. “Just keep going, because at the end of the day, it’s about the life that you fought to get.”
For Mardukhayeva, getting the opportunity at a life full of possibilities is the definition of the American Dream – something she hopes is as accessible for the soon-to-be Americans as it has been for her.
“To me, the American Dream means that I can dream,” she said. “It doesn’t mean a white picket fence. It means that we get to choose what our fence looks like.”