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Real estate as an industry remains local in ways that other professions cannot replicate, but our lives remain deeply intertwined with the world at large. As human beings, we want to be involved, to explore, to help our neighbors near and far. But what does that really look like, and what is the value of that attitude at a top real estate firm?
In the summer of 2021, thousands of refugees fled a dangerous, violent situation in Afghanistan as the United States hurried its withdrawal after an almost two-decade long war. Against the backdrop of that chaos, one young man arrived in New York City, having left everything behind.
Bess Freedman (CEO, Brown Harris Stevens): I was talking to Babette Krolik, our counsel/attorney for the company, and she was telling me about how she is part of this community in Brooklyn that works to help Afghan refugees find homes, get placements and even get their education. There was this one refugee in his early 20s with no place to go, and no family in the U.S., and so, she took it upon herself to offer him a room in her townhouse until he could find something else.
She was telling me this story about how she wanted to try and help him, and I was incredibly inspired. I couldn’t believe it. She’s an older woman, and to bring a strange young man into your home, without knowing the person, in today’s world…she felt comfortable, and she brought him into her home.
Hamid Niazi: In Afghanistan, we had made our lives step by step. We had achieved everything in our lives, and we had happiness. I remember being a kid and not having anything to eat, but day by day it got better. I was in Afghanistan the night Kabul fell. We had made a good life for our family. My father was a specialist, and my sister and I were in university. I also had little businesses where I brought lots of goods to mosques and markets and sold them, and I had good profit from that. I was free. After Kabul fell, our lives changed in an hour.
Babette Krolik: Hamid sort of emerged on our doorstep looking totally bedraggled and cowed and frightened. It was around the time of my daughter’s birthday, and we were planning a little family celebration, so I decided to put him to work putting up decorations. When she was a little girl, we would decorate the house, and I always like saving little bits of ritual–so I gave him crepe paper and explained how to string garlands. He immediately got up on the ladder and got into hanging the garland. He had all kinds of creative ideas and just threw himself into decorating the house. From then on, he felt like one of the family.
HN: Meeting Babette was the first time I faced being dependent on somebody I didn’t know, and I felt so shameful, but after being introduced to her, it felt like I was living with my family.
Getting a job
BF: Babette was telling me, “I have to figure something out for him. He doesn’t really know English, and he needs to get a job. He has to get some income so he can get his own place.”
And it didn’t take long to dawn on me that we could use his help in a supportive role as an admin or to help the chief administrator do some paperwork, so we brought him in. His English wasn’t good, but after helping us out for a few months, it got better, and someone in our company paid for him to take English classes. We then employed him full time.
BK: It’s kind of interesting, because when Hamid showed up, he was described as having been in medical school. But it quickly became apparent that he had no interest in medicine and that he was only doing it because his father had been a doctor and because his sisters were in medical school. And frankly, I think that in Afghanistan, one of the only clear paths (and the most frequent form of education) is through med school because you obviously need doctors, and MBA or computer science classes don’t really exist.
HN: Babette told me that I would be fortunate to work with Brown Harris Stevens temporarily, and I told her that I could assist them given that I knew how to use Excel, Word and other programs. She told me I could work at the firm for two months. After that, she would help me find a good opportunity. I accepted that offer.
Before I came to the United States, I had a lot of experience in real estate in Afghanistan. From when I was 10 years old, my father went to another place for work, and I would always go and find damaged houses—and we made a profession of buying them. I always said to my father, “Come back to Kabul and buy this place,” because I was too young to sign a document. I learned a lot about real estate and managing properties in Afghanistan, but after I came here, it was completely different. I learned how real estate works with Brown Harris Stevens. I learned everything from agreements to how they work as well as what agents do.
After two months, I had a really good time at Brown Harris Stevens. They told me about a new administrator position. They said, “It’s hard for you because you will receive a lot of calls from agents, and it will be difficult for you. But after you learn how to speak professionally in English, if you want, you can work as an admin.” And I accepted that position.
BF: We see this young, wonderful kid, and he’s all by himself here in a strange land. And he doesn’t speak the language.
It’s such an easy thing to offer a person an opportunity to learn and grow. You could see that he wanted to learn and that he wanted to get stability and grow and have a profession and get all of these opportunities that he just didn’t have. We had to have a little bit of patience because he didn’t speak English very well, and we had to work with him slowly, but it was so worth it. Now he’s one of the most positive people on the team. He’s really sweet, he’s learning and he’s got a fluency with the language.
Why it worked
BK: The more I got to know Hamid, the more it became clear that he had all these entrepreneurial ideas and all this entrepreneurial experience. And as it came out, he started to tell me more and more about the businesses he had been involved in. The fact that he was doing these entrepreneurial things like buying properties and renting them/flipping them, it was clear that he was out there hustling at a very early age.
What impresses me is what a quick study he is and how quickly he adapted. I got him this job in a Manhattan office and he was running numbers in Excel within a week. He had absolutely no experience in a western-style office, in a western-style environment, or in the types of computer reports that westernized business requires, specifically a very sophisticated, high-end real estate brokerage. I am sure none of the business records he ever produced for his family or for a class were anything similar to that, and yet he did it, and everybody was delighted and thought he was terrific.
BF: I think it’s hard when you’re in a business and it moves so quickly because you don’t always have the time. But how could we not take advantage of this golden opportunity to help someone when we have so many advantages?
I was incredibly inspired by it, and it made me feel really proud to be part of a company where people do this. It doesn’t happen every day. We have thousands of agents here; it’s a big company. For someone like Babette to do that, and for him to come in and work, it was a moment that made me appreciate where I work. It was very moving. It was just a beautiful thing.
I had a meeting a few months ago with the whole administrative team, and Hamid is part of that, and he spoke up and he had a lot of things to say. He’s very involved and committed. He cares, and he is invested. It was really nice to see that.
HN: I’ll try to study political economics, because real estate is like a business. When you know how to manage a business, it’s good, but I want to work internationally.
The only problem that I have and I want to solve is with my accent and English, and also talking professionally so that I can speak well and hang out with people. The way I am looking to do that is to learn professional English, and after that, I will achieve a lot.
I submitted my application for a scholarship for Columbia University. I wrote my essay and I got two recommendation letters from . I hope that I get this scholarship, and if I do, I will start at Columbia University. If I don’t, I’ll be trying to find another way to start university and continue my education, because the big pressure on me is how I can start my education again.
What was left behind
HN: I received a call from my fiance. It was the middle of the night and she was crying, and she told me, “I am burned.” She was burned in a fire. They had burned up her building, and after that, she was burned. I struggled a lot to send her to Pakistan—how can I get her out of the country? After two or three days spent in Pakistan, I lost her.
She passed away on the 2nd of May. She was my classmate in medical university, and she was also the representative for the medical university. She was also a volunteer for the students who were coming into the university, and she helped them a lot. She was so active, motivated to work a lot and to help people.
BK: After she died, he totally fell apart. He didn’t go to work for about a week, and he was just devastated. At one point, I picked him up and drove him around Manhattan because he just wanted to be in a car.
A couple weeks later, I took him and a friend to our place in Massachusetts, and he really enjoyed that. He really enjoyed being out of the city, being in nature and seeing something different. After that, he started going back to work, but he would still have low points. While he is periodically in touch with her family, he is still very angry, guilty and bitter about what happened.
HN: I’m concerned about my sisters and their education because day by day, the living situation in Kabul gets so bad. I feel that they don’t have anyone by their side, their brother, and my mother feels so depressed about me.
I have a plan for them. I told them that they should start preparing for English tests. My sister knows more professional English than me because she has studied. The university doesn’t teach that, but she learned it all herself, and she passed the assimilation test after finishing medical university. She can get out of Afghanistan and become a specialist in a field outside of the country.
It will be the happiest day of my life when I see them again.