Munir Ahmed greeted us with a gracious smile and invited us to take our shoes off in the vestibule. Then he escorted us into a room with walls painted a bright, warm yellow, with no decoration.
“Please,” he said, and we took a seat on the floor among a dozen colorful pillows.
Shortly afterwards a plate appeared featuring a tasty circular fortress wall of rice and lentils surrounding a pool of butter and yogurt, served hot.
That’s “dandakae,” a specialty of Khost, Ahmed’s native province in the south of Afghanistan, Ahmed said.
He was serving a mid-day feast — his wife had spent three hours doing all the cooking — in their modest apartment on Donna Drive in the Quinnipiac Meadows, where many Afghans and Pakistanis have started pursuing new lives in America.
That home is Ahmed’s refuge between working two jobs. He holds down the night shift at a nearby 7-1 1— a gateway job for many area Afghans because some local 7-11 franchises are owned by Pakistanis. He is also a Lyft driver. Meanwhile, he has begun working toward a master’s degree course in construction management at the University of New Haven.
Ahmed and his family have been here ten months on an SIV, or Special Immigrant Visa, for those Afghans who over the course of the wars in Afghanistan have worked with American forces.
A civil engineer by training, he had the job of maintaining the American airfield in Khost at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Salerno, a location so often targeted by the Taliban, it was known as “Rocket City.”
When he and his family began receiving Taliban death threats in 2014, Ahmed began the process of immigrating. Now here he is working hard, tasting life in this strange place called New Haven, and sharing tastes of home with his guests.
Lunch on rainy Wednesday afternoon was all about sharing the tastes not only of home, but also of his experience in New Haven — and why he chose the Elm City to settle. A portrait emerged of a hard-working man building a life for himself and his family amid 30-60 Afghan families in the area with similar dreams.
It’s a picture of people with a very strong work ethic, maintaining connection with their native traditions, but throwing themselves into American life as well — at odds with President Trump’s recent characterization of immigrants as terrorists from “shithole” countries.
Still if Trump were Ahmed’s guest, he would serve as lavishly as he did us and make the president as happy and comfortable as possible, he said. “Even my enemy comes to my house, I feed him,” he said.
Lunch with Ahmed included this reporter; Ahmed’s sponsor, Abdul Rehman, a fellow Afghan who served as an Air Force interpreter and came here in 2014; and NHPD Officer Bill Gargone, an appreciator of Afghan traditions from several tours as a U.S. Army Special Forces captain stationed near Kabul. Gargone set up this lunch.
First came the “dandakae.” Then “chakni,” a yogurt and chili dish. “Chapli kebab,” ground meat and spices fried in oil that we scooped up with hunks of the homemade naan. Then a fritter called “karyae,” also local to Khost, created from onion, chili, tomato beef, and some aromatic spices that filled up the modest apartment with their redolence.
There were plates of grapes and oranges and a yogurt drink. “That would be pure fresh goat’s milk,” said Gargone, if we were in Afghanistan.
Before we dived in, all the food was laid out in a gesture of hospitality, which is characteristic of Ahmed’s Pashtun heritage.
He showed me how natives use no metal implements but rather pieces of the naan to soak up the curried kebab juices, and how the fingers are usually the implement of choice for the “dandakai.”
I tried both with fingers and then a soup spoon that Ahmed eventually also brought out, continually seeking to make sure that “Mr. Allan” (that’s me) was enjoying every moment. As we ate, he watched, attentive. Then he took my spoon, and turning it, used it as a tool — after all, he’s an engineer by training — to mix up all the elements of the “dandakae,” especially the butter, into the portion he wanted me to taste. He maneuvered it to the side of the communal plate nearest to me; the smoothness of the dish, through the warm butter, should be appreciated.
And it was.
“You don’t even have to have teeth to enjoy that,” I said.
That precision, of an organized engineer, was also part of his choosing New Haven, he said as he passed the naan around to us all.
Ahmed said he comes from a family with unusual educational credentials in Khost. Although the family hails from there, they were driven during the war with the former U.S.S.R. to tough refugee camps in Pakistan. Ahmed returned to Khost when he was five years old. He said he has five uncles, all with bachelors degrees. Unusually among Pashtun, they believe in education for females, as he put it.
He said he researched New Haven before he came, lining up pluses and minuses.
“I chose New Haven for its positive points: For the education, Yale and University of New Haven. It’s also between New York and Boston; It’s close to the Afghan consulate; Abdul [Rahman] is my U.S. tie.
“The one negative is the cold. I’m used to it, I worked in Jalalabad [in the north]; Khost is arid, 115 degrees.” His wife and family, he said, are having more trouble adjusting to the cold.
When I complimented our host on the color and sweetness of the grapes, which he had handed to me, he had a touch of wistfulness in his eye. “Afghan grapes are better,” he said. “Sweeter.”
What also could be sweeter in New Haven is the job situation, said Ahmed. Although his English is very good — both he and Rahman studied at the only English language academy in Khost that the Taliban permitted to stay open — he has been turned down when applying for construction jobs.
That has prompted him to enroll in the University of New Haven’s master’s program in construction management. Because he needs to work two jobs to support his wife and three kids, he is studying part time, currently in the middle of his second semester.
He said that IRIS (Integretated Refugee and Immigrant Services) has been helpful, and he praised his kids’ experience at Fair Haven School, which is the educational entryway for many immigrant kids arriving in New Haven.
Meeting new people, especially outside of the orbit has proved difficult. He has “cultural ambassadors,” he said, referring to people linked to him through IRIS’s “cultural companions” program.
While acclimating to American life, Ahmed has clearly retained pride in Pashtun traditions and language. For religious purposes, he gathers with fellow Muslims at a mosque in Orange. He has taken it upon himself to teach Pashtun language, traditions, and religious practices both to his own kids and to the children of several of his Afghan friends; they comprise a Pashtun cluster living, as Rahman does, in the complex on Donna Drive.
Friendship and personal relations often occur over food, over a meal such as we were sharing. If there is a land or personal or any kind of dispute between two Pashtuns, he explained, when one comes to the other’s house, the visitor does not partake of the meal prepared until an agreement is reached. Then the eating commences, he explained.
Wednesday’s elaborate food-centered hospitality “is our tradition. We have to ask guests if they want more,” he said — as he indeed offered us more. In Khost, he added, you’re supposed to have your guests eat not only for themselves, but for the departed, who are celebrated at nearby shrines.
Ahmed, who admitted he looks older than his 32 years, has seen a lot of death, rockets, and bombs, and tough survival conditions. Hospitality and the sharing of food must reign even under such circumstances, he said. “Even if we have only naan and a yogurt drink, I’d say], ‘Eat more.’”
As the meal drew to a close, Ahmed gathered the various dishes onto a tray to transport back into the kitchen. Gargone said that during his 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. patrol shift in the neighborhood, he often drops by the 7-11, where Ahmed, of course, invites him in back to chat and drink coffee. Being in touch with Ahmed and other Afghans and Pakistanis in the area brings back experiences and relationships and the pleasures of traditional Afghan foods still important to him, he said. And it continually reminds him of how hard families like Ahmed’s are working in America today.
“Here’s this guy here ten months, he has two jobs and [working toward] a master’s degree, and they love America. So why are people treating them harshly?” he asked.
Gargone described more than one incident on the overnight shift when he has had to go on calls to various stores because of blow-ups between an Afghan or Pakistani or Bangladeshi clerk and a customer complaining that the clerk is not making himself clear in his English. “I see these things in the news. These people need our support. People don’t have the tolerance,” he reflected.
While Ahmed said he was surprised and troubled by President Trump’s remarks about immigrants, he did praise the president’s recent decision to cut off of aid to Pakistan, which never, he said, has served the needs of Afghans or Americans.
I thanked Ahmed for the generous meal, and for the insight into his old and new life. I asked him to thank his wife, as well; in keeping with how he described Pashtun tradition, she remained out of sight during the meal.
“I would be happy to serve my country,” he said, but it is not safe yet to return. “If not I’ll serve here.”
Then Ahmed asked us both if we’d had enough to eat and slowly led us out to where we had left our shoes by the door.