Shafia Safai, the widow of Mohammad Rahim Safai an Afghan general who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, visits his grave in Evergreen Cemetery, where a headstone has finally been placed after readers responded to our story earlier this year with an outpouring of financial support. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The black marble headstone provides meaningful comfort to Mohammad Safai’s widow.

A year and a half after the former Afghan general died of COVID-19 at age 79, the marker finally has been installed on his grave in a Muslim section of Evergreen Cemetery in Portland.

Shafia Safai touches the polished, sun-warmed stone, whispers a prayer of remembrance and wipes away tears.

“It tells me this is his place,” Safai says through an interpreter. “Now, when I’m here, it means I’m here with him.”

Mohammad Safai

Mohammad Safai of Westbrook, a retired general in the Afghan army, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 20, 2020, at age 79. Photo courtesy of Asila Gul Mohammad

The headstone’s placement in May is one of several good things that have happened in Safai’s life in recent months, thanks to the generosity of Press Herald readers and others who responded after the newspaper shared her plight in January.

At that time, Mohammad Safai had been dead for more than a year and friends in the immigrant community had pitched in more than $3,000 to purchase a headstone for his grave.


But the city of Portland’s General Assistance program had blocked placement of the headstone on the grave until Shafia Safai repaid just over $4,000 in cemetery and burial costs.

Clients of the GA program sign an agreement promising to reimburse the city when they are able, and installing a headstone in the city-owned cemetery before that debt was paid would violate the contract, Portland officials said.

Safai, who is 67 and lives in Westbrook, had no resources to pay for the burial or the headstone because she was still waiting to attain legal immigration status eight years after she and her husband applied for asylum in 2014. She couldn’t work and she didn’t qualify for many public services or programs such as MaineCare, the state’s form of Medicaid.

So the gravestone, intricately carved in English, Arabic and Dari, sat outside the stonecutter’s shop in South Portland, waiting to be installed in the cemetery.

After the Press Herald published a story about Safai, dozens of readers contacted the paper, asking how they could make a contribution.

Friends and immigrant advocates set up the Mohammad R. Safai Family Trust, an account at Bangor Savings and a post office box to receive donations. The fund would be used to pay the cemetery and burial fees, as well as any other expenses the family incurred related to health care, immigration or settling in the United States.


The headstone for Mohammad Rahim Safai, an Afghan general who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Contributions came pouring in.

“The average donation was about $25, but some people were very generous and sent checks for as much as $1,500,” said Kim Sullivan, a retired attorney in Newcastle who previously worked for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Sullivan oversees the fund along with Ghomri Rostamour, an immigrant advocate who lives in South Portland and works with the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, and Jennifer Atkinson, an immigration attorney in Damariscotta.

The trustees, who are volunteers, wouldn’t say exactly how much money was donated, citing concerns about revealing Safai’s personal finances. But they did say it was several thousand dollars more than needed to cover burial costs. The trust has been registered with the Internal Revenue Service and they are seeking an accountant to assist in filing necessary reports.

As donations rolled in, the trustees immediately took steps to address many of Safai’s long-neglected health care needs. She got new glasses and went to the dentist for the first time in several years.

“This poor lady had nothing,” said Rostampour, who brought Safai to many appointments. “I’ve been where Shafia is. I know it’s not easy. We work together as a team to provide emotional support and help her navigate the system.”


Shafia Safai, the widow of Mohammad Rahim Safai, an Afghan general who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, wipes away tears while visiting his gravesite in Evergreen Cemetery, where a headstone has finally been placed after readers responded to our story earlier this year with an outpouring of financial support to pay for the ornately carved black granite marker. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After being interviewed by immigration officials in September, Safai finally was granted asylum in March.

“She’s legal now and can apply for a green card early next year,” Sullivan said. “Then she will be a legal permanent resident, and four years later she will be able to become a U.S. citizen.”

With legal asylum status, Safai also has applied for refugee travel documents so she can attend a granddaughter’s wedding in Switzerland in July using money from the trust fund, Sullivan said. Safai hasn’t been able to travel outside the United States since she and her husband came to Maine from Afghanistan in 2013.

“I haven’t seen some family members for nine years,” Safai said. “I’m looking forward to being with them. Every day they are checking with me to see if I booked the plane tickets.”

Mohammad and Shafia Safai came here to visit a daughter who died unexpectedly of cancer later that year. The elderly couple were left largely alone in their Westbrook apartment, with several grandchildren living in Greater Portland. Father and daughter are buried next to each other in Evergreen Cemetery.

A former schoolteacher, Shafia Safai had eight children, including twins who died young. The Taliban killed one son in 2001 for failing to comply with the oppressive Islamist regime and a second son in 2010 for working with U.S. forces.


Now, one daughter lives in Turkey, another lives in Switzerland, and a third remains in Afghanistan, where she was a schoolteacher before the Taliban assumed power last summer. With help from Atkinson and money from the trust fund, Safai hopes to bring that daughter and her family to Maine, Sullivan said.

When Mohammad Safai died Nov. 20, 2020, Shafia Safai lost her partner of nearly 55 years. Son of a federal judge, he attended military college in Kabul and rose to the rank of general in the Afghan army, fighting the Soviets and the Taliban.

“He was my best friend,” Safai said, “not just my husband.”

Safai said she is grateful to all the people who sent donations. Many came with notes or cards wishing her well. Translated by Rostampour, the messages lifted her up and made her feel connected to the wider community here in Maine.

“I felt I was among family,” Safai said. “Whenever I get sad, I look at the notes and cards and I know that I belong. I pray every day for the people who helped me.”

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