Gateway to Freedom Scholarship Fund Makes a Promise for the Future
During his last mission on active duty in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014, United States Marine Corps Gunnery Seargent Hugh Tychsen served as an embedded advisor with the Afghan Army in the Helmand providence in Afghanistan. In this role, Tychsen assisted the Afghan Army in their efforts to implement democracy in Helmand against the wishes of the Taliban, who valued the area due to its fertile farmland. Tychsen was assigned an interpreter, Haseeb Ahmadi.
Throughout their time working together, their bond became that of brotherhood. Tychsen recounted, “There were multiple times in which I feel like Haseeb saved my life. He had been injured before working with the Marines. He could have stopped, but he didn’t. We forged a friendship in adversity.”
Towards the end of his tour in 2014, Tychsen became aware of a program in which he could recommend Ahmadi for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) which would allow Ahmadi to relocate to America should the U.S. army pull out of Afghanistan. Tychsen provided a letter of recommendation for Ahmadi’s SIV application in 2014. After a three-year wait, Ahmadi and his family relocated to St. Louis. Ahmadi now owns MQA Renovations, a thriving construction company.
Today, Tychsen has provided recommendations for 86 SIVs, with hundreds more to come. These families, most of which have multiple young children, are “snuck out” through a nonprofit which Tychsen likened to an underground railroad. The approval process for SIVs has sped up to an average of 18 months.
Tychsen partners with many local organizations to help new arrivals acclimate to their new lives in St. Louis. International Institute of St. Louis assists with all federal paperwork, school enrollment, and housing. Oasis International Institue and Welcome Neighbor STL provide furniture, cell phones, cars, clothing, and home essentials. Tychsen even assists with job placement, ensuring that individuals secure full-time jobs with benefits. Ahmadi’s MQA Renovations is one of these employers.
“When they get here, they have the clothes on their back and their visa—that’s it,” said Tychsen. “These families have horrific stories of being near and around violence, and many of them have close family or friends who have been killed or suffered abuse at the hands of the Taliban. They’re used to surviving on scarce resources and under the threat of violence every day to the exact opposite. The culture shock and psychological shift can be intense.”
To help families adjust, Tychsen and Ahmadi spent time coaching adults on topics such as savings accounts and car insurance—unfamiliar concepts for families who, after living in survival mode for so long, now find themselves thinking about the future for the first time. Parents learn alongside their children as they learn to read and write English, and families come together to create a new community.
Tychsen and Ahmadi continue to see each other weekly, working together to assist refugees but also as brothers. “He (Ahmadi) comes to holidays at my house with my family. We celebrate birthdays together. We are family now,” said Tychsen. “When refugees come here, they are welcomed with open arms.”
Tychsen’s story inspired Olivier and Anne-Chantal Amice to create the Gateway to Freedom Scholarship Fund to support the children and grandchildren of individuals like Ahmadi, immigrants who worked alongside the U.S. military and escaped the Taliban. “I don’t have the words to describe how generous, incredible, and humble their initiative and perseverance was,” said Tyschen of the Amice family. “They have come through like no one else has to help these families in the long-term.”
The Fund will open for applications in the 2033 academic year, a waiting period designed to allow the Fund balance—and the children of the refugees—to grow. To Tychsen and Ahmadi, the fund is a way to tell refugee families that there are people looking out for and contributing to their childrens’ future. “With the Gateway to Freedom Scholarship fund, we’re saying that we want to invest in the next generation,” said Tychsen. “The best way to do that is to make sure that these kids have access to higher education.”
Click here to donate to the Gateway to Freedom Scholarship Fund.