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Zenat Drown fled Afghanistan as a child. Now, she's working to help a new generation of refugees

Zenat Drown
Zenat Drown
Zenat Drown holds a displaced orphan in the Debaga camp in Northern Iraq in 2016

As the world watches the situation unfold in Afghanistan, one Afghan refugee — now living in North Carolina — shares her journey of trauma and recovery, from her birth country to her new home.

Zenat Drown, an Afghan refugee from the Pashtun tribe, says she is a refugee success story.

”I am the product of if America and other countries welcome these refugees with open arms, and really care for them. I'm the successful product of that action," she said.

Zenat was born in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, in 1988. In the years just before her birth, the former Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the Mujahideen declared jihad against its foreign invader. The Mujahideen combined with foreign extremist fighters funneled through Pakistan and propped up by the U.S. became what we now know as the Taliban.

She became all familiar with the horrors and struggles of war when at age six she became a part of the ongoing diaspora of the Pashtun people. Her family fled going from city to city in Afghanistan, through a refugee camp in Pakistan, and eventually landed in Wheaton, Illinois.

Zenat credits her emotional health and success today to people in a church in Wheaton. They noticed she was being abused at home and advocated for her.

“The church people stepped in, people that could have easily looked the other directions, they're not my problem and not religion, that's what happens. No, people made it their problem and stood up for me," she said.

She was removed from her home and was placed in an at-risk youth program known as Wheaton Youth Outreach. A Marine Corps family fostered her during the program, and it was their support that allowed Zenat to begin to heal, learn coping skills, and recover the beauty that was stolen from her from the years of abuse and rape.

Later, she was adopted by an Army family, who came from Alabama and North Carolina. She says the most powerful form of healing was these families and team's constant love no matter how she acted out.

“My success belongs to the people that stepped in and welcomed me as part of their community and part of their life, their world, my mother, my adopted mom is my hero," she said.

Even though they could not understand her extreme form of trauma, they showed her patience and grace as she worked through layers of anger, fear, and confusion.

Zenat Drown
The Drown family together in Boone, North Carolina.

Their unconditional support and their beliefs changed Zenat’s life. Now, the wife of a former Marine, and mother of two young boys, she leads an international NGO (Greater Change) that assists, rescues, and rehabilitates other victims of terrorism across the globe. A mission that led her to Northern Iraq in 2015 to rescue Yazidi women who had been used and then discarded by ISIS. She again came face-to-face with the horrors of terrorism.

“We work with ISIS children that were fathered by ISIS. Yazidi girls came back into northern Iraq, some of them came with kids, the kids that are under our care are all under five years old. They come home, their community and their families say 'dump the child in the trash can, wherever you can go, put them on the sidewalk or lift a car, run them over,'" she said.

Yazidi Woman
Zenat Drown
Zenat Drown sits with Yazidi woman in northern Iraq.

Her time with these victims reopened old wounds.

“If you're working in the front line, it can affect you psychologically, for quite a bit. And, and we need a little grace and mercy from the community when we come back to understand why somebody's, you know, absolutely losing their mind, or they're grumpy, it's not you, it's what they're experiencing in the moment," she said.

The refugees fleeing Afghanistan now, she says, will need the same kindness and mercy from their local communities without that she says, the cost of rejection and judgment is high.

“Welcome them and pray for them. And we have to do that. Otherwise, we keep bringing the refugees here and they keep getting rejected and their little boys that could be easily, you know, redeemed and taken care of and rescued and restored, will go join the extremist group because they know they are not welcomed by the Western society," she said.

Above all, Zenat adds, we must have compassion for their pain — and give them time to heal.