Living & Growing: A brother and sister story

Trish Turner Custard

My brother’s name is Samayul Haq Gran. Samay was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. How did a nice Jewish girl from Baltimore, Maryland, end up with an Afghan brother? Well, it’s a story.

When my brother Terry was a senior in high school, we became an American Field Service family. The exchange student placed with our family was Samay. It was a typically hot and humid August day when we picked up Samay from the AFS offices in Washington, DC. He was wearing a heavy wool suit and had one suitcase. That suitcase would be a constant source of wonder for us because at each holiday or birthday he somehow managed to extract from it wonderful Afghan gifts he brought with him — karakul vests and hats, jewelry, traditional shoes, fabric. On our drive back to our home he marveled that someone as young as me, I was 10, could speak English so well.

With just a few cultural and language hiccups, Samay quickly became a part of the family. He had a great sense of humor and delighted in introducing himself as “Sammy Gran from Afghanistan”. We would spend hours around the dinner table laughing and swapping increasingly taller tales. One particular dinner forever became known as the Chocolate Chicken meal after a disastrous attempt by my mother to recreate a chicken recipe Samay brought with him, that had lost a few essentials in translation, left us eating bars of chocolate for dinner to get the taste of the chicken out of our mouths.

He and I were especially close. Samay had a sister my age in Kabul, so we had that immediate understanding and ease with each other. We watched reruns of “Mr. Ed” on TV after school and I had to break it to Samay that, no, horses in America really can’t talk. When it was time for him to go back to Afghanistan after a year with us, my heart was broken. We kept in contact, many years before email, with constant letters back and forth.

In 1980, when the Russians attempted to take over Afghanistan, Samay, the oldest son, managed to get all his family out of the country. When the Russian Army conscripted him into service, Samay fled on foot over the Hindu Kush into Pakistan. With the help of the International Red Cross, he was brought to the United States and to our home. That summer I drove him to Stone Mountain, Georgia, to reunite with his family who had settled there. What fun we had on that drive singing along with the radio, Elvis was always Samay’s favorite, and stopping to get milkshakes to cool us off since my car did not have air conditioning. I’ll never forget the feast his family threw for his arrival and the overwhelming warmth, love and acceptance his family gave me.

Years passed, Samay completed the medical studies he started in Kabul, and we settled into the typical adult sibling’s relationship of phone calls, cards and occasional visits. In 2003, Samay returned to Afghanistan to serve as a translator for the U.S. military. At that time, due to restrictions placed on him by the military for security purposes, I lost contact with him. I would get occasional updates from his family in Georgia, but they too had limited contact, and eventually that source of information also ended.

In 2021, when the U.S. left Afghanistan and conditions there became chaotic, I feared for my brother. In the 18 years he had been away, I had moved six times. I knew he would not be able to find me. I hired a private investigating service and with the last-known U.S. address I had for Samay, they managed to return to me several possible addresses of known relatives. I sent a letter to the addresses with my contact information. On Jan. 1, 2022, my phone rang. I answered to hear a familiar voice say, “Trish, it’s me. Sammy Gran from Afghanistan.”

He was in the U.S., back in Georgia living with a brother, and safe! My heart, which had been missing an important piece for 18 years, filled, then burst with joy to have my brother back.

• Trish Turner Custard is on the Congregation Sukkat Shalom Board. CSS is supporting the relocation of an Afghan family from a refugee camp to Juneau. It appears every Friday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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