Foster Parenting Tall Sudanese teen boy is shown from mouth to chest; he stands next to a shorter Iranian-white woman with long straight hair and glasses

Published on April 11th, 2023 | by Mahru Elahi



While I was moving through the vetting process to become a foster parent for a refugee youth, I was intentional about stating a preference for children from Muslim countries because of my own family’s struggle against Islamophobia. I wanted to provide a home that felt culturally familiar and safe. I didn’t want a child to have to advocate for themselves in order to get access to a place of worship, appropriate food to eat, and awareness of community celebrations and holidays.

I hadn’t been so lucky as a kid. My white mom and Iranian dad had tried their best. There just weren’t many models for being a multi-faith, white and West Asian couple in Los Angeles in the 1970’s. Even before the American embassy in Tehran was overrun in 1979, Americans harbored distrust for immigrants from the Middle East who occupied a liminal space, both legally and culturally, between Black and white.

Once the approval for my state license to provide foster care was finalized, I was given a choice between two youth whom the foster care agency had deemed a good fit for placement in my home. 

I hadn’t expected this. It was an impossibility: How could I be asked to choose? My voice, on the phone with the social worker in charge of placement, rose in pitch. I sounded like an overheated ceiling fan. 

“Can I just welcome both of them?”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t normally do that,” she said.

I thought of the bedroom upstairs, where I had drilled matching holes into walls for matching shelves. Part of the preparation for the resource parent license had included home visits. The bedroom had been approved. It was complete with two beds, their paired antique frames purchased by my parents over forty years ago in Illinois and vivid in my childhood memory when I laid between their sturdy fir posts.

“But I have two beds,” I hoped and waited.

Twin wood-frame beds in a brick-walled room
Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

She seemed to choose her words in the same way that I sorted through the dried beans I prepared to soak. I imagined her, plunging fingers into the rattling bowl, feeling them slip through her fingers before grasping tightly onto what she was looking for.

“It can be…confusing for both youth and put additional stress on your ability to provide care.” 

There was no further negotiation. She gave me a day to decide between Washington,* a young man from Central America in his late teens, who was already being fostered in an interim placement close to me (and who would move in immediately) or Samir,* a Sudanese child living in Niger, whose case might take months to process.  

Samir had an extensive paper trail. While Washington certainly had a slew of pages fluttering in his wake, he presented a different sort of dilemma for immigration officials. Washington’s feet had already touched American soil. The foster care agency had stepped in to sponsor Washington as an unaccompanied minor who was being threatened with deportation. 

Samir, on the other hand, was not leaving Niger without permission. Because of his legal status as a refugee, Samir had a Best Interests Determination Report (BID) attached to his case. The BID is a document, created under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that is sent to a sponsoring agency when they have agreed to resettle a refugee. The BID told Samir’s story. My conversation with the social worker in charge of placement ended with a caveat.

“There isn’t much information I can send you on Washington, as you are making your decision.”

“Okay. You gave me a lot of information, so I’ll go with that. This is going to be hard. I really wish I didn’t have to choose,” I said.

Typed government form: "Best Interests Determination"

“I know. Once we get off the call, I’ll email the BID for Samir. His story is painful. Take care of yourself as you read it.”

I nodded instinctively, though she couldn’t see me. 

Once I had hung up, I opened the email entitled “12 yo Referral” and scrolled down to click on the BID attachment. A black-and-white photo of Samir appeared in the top right corner of the BID’S first page.  

Despite the grainy resolution, it was clear that Samir had striking features, his skin sculpted with a symmetry usually reserved for runway models. Samir’s nose unfurled towards the shadowed planes of cheeks and his wide forehead pulled taut with tension. He gazed at the camera without smiling, lips slightly parted to reveal a flash of teeth. A long neck emerged from a dark polo shirt. His hair looked matted, like it hadn’t seen a pick in weeks. I thought he appeared tired and fed up.

I was unprepared for the gravitational pull of the photo. It grasped me by the shoulders, fingers digging into my flesh and pulling me closer, the pixels on the screen softly vibrating. I’d been inclined to welcome an older kid into my home, someone Washington’s age. In fact, I had been explicitly prepared for that possibility by the foster agency staff. Most youth in their Refugee Foster Care Program took years to journey through environments and systems that didn’t allow easy access to a safe harbor. As a result, they often arrived in the United States in their mid- or late teens. 

Instead, I was confronted with a child. I pieced together Samir’s long journey through the measured reportage of the BID: “He is the second born child, along with his twin sister….he says it is over a year since he was separated from his family.” For a child to navigate not just a profound migration but also an asylum process, to remain whole and relatively unharmed, was a miracle.

Samir’s journey had begun two years before in El Fasher, in a camp for internally displaced persons in North Darfur, Sudan. Samir was born in El Fasher, into a family that fled from genocide and civil war. According to the BID, when Samir was ten years old, his mother helped him fund travel to Libya in the hopes that he would find safety away from the roving gunmen, the casual violence that was endemic in El Fasher. She also hoped he would secure work and send money home. 

Instead, upon reaching Libya, Samir was kidnapped. He escaped from his Libyan captors by contorting his thin limbs and squeezing through a high window, and—with the help of other Sudanese migrants in Libya—made his way to Niger, to a UNHCR office that served Sudanese asylum seekers. He hoped he could find a path to residency and citizenship in Europe or the United States.

As I read the contents of the BID, I felt my heart crack open for this child who had never gone to school. “(He)…desires to…study English, Arabic and French so he can communicate to people and understand the Quran better.” I felt the spirit of his family, pushing him forward. I imagined that Samir represented a launching point into the future, beyond the throes of generational upheaval. 

Image by Antony Trivet from Pixabay

With a few hours remaining in my day-long decision window, I called the social worker in charge of placement back.

“I’ve made a decision. I want to welcome Samir into my home,” I said. I could barely get the words out.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said.

What I didn’t know was that the wait for Samir to arrive would be unprecedented. Six months later, I was still biding time against a dystopian backdrop of immigration bans, asylum seekers being turned away at the border, children locked in Texas cages. Bewildered by the delays, social workers at the agency continued to request updates on Samir’s approval status. 

There was little information to share. He was still in Niger, awaiting an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities. When—or if—he was finally summoned, a course of interviews would follow, including a health screen. There was the chance (floating numinous over these proceedings) that he wouldn’t be cleared. I was told that, despite all of our planning, and particularly under the current administration, he might not make it to the United States after all. 

I wondered what Samir thought about the long wait. Was he impatient? The group home in Niger, where the UNHCR housed young men awaiting word about their asylum cases, didn’t offer employment or schooling. I decided that impatience seemed like a fair characterization. I was told that the youth were not given much information about the families they had been matched with. They were only told what country they would be traveling to. 

How ironic that I was offered a choice, and yet Samir had no say in such a bedrock decision. I wondered what he would think of me. The thought caused a sliver of dread, just an olive pit, to press against the walls of my stomach. 

Would I be enough?

*Names have been changed

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About the Author

Mahru Elahi is an educator and a queer single foster mom. Mahru’s poetry and nonfiction prose have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the anthology Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (ed. Persis Karim, University of Arkansas Press, 2006). This fall, she will be entering Antioch University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on creative nonfiction and poetry.

Mahru lives in Oakland, California, with her son and their furry companions. Samir is an excerpt from a memoir in progress.

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