With toasters and empathy, former refugees welcome Afghans to US

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
From left, Arshad Mehmood, the D.C. and Virginia coordinator for ICNA Relief; Akmal Hussain, local food pantry coordinator for ICNA; and Driss Rarhai, a dedicated volunteer, prepare boxes of backpacks to be delivered to newly arrived Afghan refugees at Dulles International Airport, Aug. 26, 2021.

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As she heard of a tide of refugees seeking to come to the United States from Afghanistan, Mirriam Seddiq decided she wanted to help. Having come from Afghanistan herself as a child, she created an Amazon wish list last week with everything she thought someone starting over would need: towels, underwear, children’s clothing, and more.

Ms. Seddiq, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer from northern Virginia, was overwhelmed at what happened when she tweeted out the wish list. Within 24 hours more than 80 Amazon boxes arrived at her door. The next day 170 boxes arrived. Then 260. 

Why We Wrote This

When people come to an unfamiliar country – as is now happening with thousands of Afghan refugees – they need not just material support but also hope and encouragement.

“I’m positively floored by the kindness,” says Ms. Seddiq, who is in the process of forming a nonprofit organization to continue the work.

Such efforts by both nonprofits and individuals are helping people like Abid, who arrived in the U.S. in July and hopes to find work in an unfamiliar nation. As the new arrivals are welcomed by former refugees and others, they need simple encouragement as well as things like clothing and towels. Even amid his job search, Abid himself takes time to join a welcome effort for other new arrivals at Dulles Airport.

For many Americans, it’s difficult to imagine what the tens of thousands of newly arrived Afghan refugees are going through. 

But Arshad Mehmood doesn’t have to imagine. He knows. Only seven years ago, Mr. Mehmood was in their shoes, fleeing Pakistan. He describes being kidnapped and tortured by the Taliban for being a local politician. 

Now, as the regional coordinator for a national nonprofit, Mr. Mehmood as well as his team in northern Virginia, many of whom are refugees themselves, is helping these new arrivals with everything from finding apartments to translating school enrollment forms from English to Pashto. They have assisted more than 80 Afghan families over the past three months and expect to help almost 200 by the end of the year.

Why We Wrote This

When people come to an unfamiliar country – as is now happening with thousands of Afghan refugees – they need not just material support but also hope and encouragement.

And while this practical aid is important, says Mr. Mehmood, it’s not what newly evacuated Afghan allies need most right now. That would be encouragement and empathy. And here in Virginia, Afghans are finding this support in local communities – especially from the refugees who came before them.

“English was my third language, but I did it. We live a good life here,” says Mr. Mehmood. His wife, who is a manager at T.J. Maxx, feels welcomed to wear her hijab on the job. His daughter will start her first year of college this fall, and his son is a defensive star on his American football team. 

“We have to tell them these successful stories,” says Mr. Mehmood. “That’s what they need to hear right now.” 

There has also been an outpouring of support from U.S. citizens in northern Virginia, with mosques and temporary holding locations posting requests on social media for locals to stop bringing donations after they ran out of room. “We are at full capacity,” reads a hot pink poster board outside the Mustafa Center, an Islamic community center in Annandale, Virginia, which raised almost $30,000 for displaced families during August. 

At the Lutheran Social Services office in Annandale, one of the three agencies in northern Virginia working with the State Department to resettle Afghan refugees, a long hallway overflows with donation items. Several young families walk between cardboard boxes filled with toothpaste, deodorant, and feminine products.

Kelsey Bhandari, a case manager with Lutheran Social Services, says they’ve fielded more than 2,000 volunteer requests since early August.

“Right now we’ve been able to meet their material needs really well,” says Ms. Bhandari. “So being welcoming neighbors is the most important thing we need right now from the community.”

“We are all working around the clock”

Local resettlement professionals like Kristyn Peck, CEO of the Lutheran Social Services national capital branch, say the scale and timeline of current efforts is unlike anything they’ve experienced. It wasn’t until the last week of July that Ms. Peck and her team were informed that President Joe Biden would begin mass evacuations on July 31.

“It was like, ‘Tomorrow. Be ready.’ Usually we have more time,” says Ms. Peck. “But there was no hesitation. We were like, ‘Absolutely.’”

By the end of September, Ms. Peck’s organization is projected to have helped more than 1,000 Afghans with everything from housing, to job placement, to enrolling in English as a second language classes.

“We are all working around the clock,” says Ms. Peck. 

Although President Biden had long signaled U.S. intentions to withdraw from Afghanistan, the chaotic final phase has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike who fear it didn’t give the U.S. military ample time to evacuate all of its Afghan allies: locals who have worked alongside American troops for the past two decades. The allies who remain in the country are likely targets of the Taliban – especially those who still hold Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), which are given to Afghans employed by the United States. 

Courtesy of Mirriam Seddiq
Mirriam Seddiq, a lawyer from northern Virginia, started an Amazon wish list last week for items that Afghan refugees might need, such as towels, bedding, kitchen supplies, and clothing. Within a week, more than 1,000 packages of goods had arrived at her home.

More than 122,000 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, but the Biden administration has not clarified what share of that figure is Afghans, nor has it said how many allies remain in Afghanistan. But estimates suggest 100,000 to 300,000 allies may be left behind.

“My friends, they have passports and visas but they cannot fly to the U.S.,” says Sayed, who recently arrived in Virginia with his wife and young son. 

Sayed, whose real name has been withheld for safety reasons, learned his SIV was approved on July 10 and went into hiding – per the U.S. embassy’s instruction – until his flight left for Virginia’s Dulles Airport one week later. It wasn’t until he was waiting at his gate at the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul with his wife and son that he could tell his extended family they were leaving Afghanistan forever.

Even now, safely on American soil in a Washington suburb with his wife and son playing beside him, Sayed still lives in fear. He’s afraid he put his family back home in danger because he helped the U.S., and he’s afraid that he won’t be able to make a life here in America for his wife and son. He and his wife owned their own small business in Afghanistan. Now they are struggling to find jobs. They can’t find a car they can afford, and he has to figure out how to enroll his son, who speaks little English, in school. 

“I didn’t dream about this. I dreamed about a new Afghanistan that we worked on for 20 years,” he says. “But now it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Now I have to forget about Afghanistan. It is gone.”

With the help of his case manager at Lutheran Social Services, he is making progress. He is at its Annandale office picking up a pile of donated goods such as a toaster, paper towels, lamps, and a teakettle. After living with a nearby relative since July, he and his family moved into their own apartment this week. 

A tweet brings tide of help

After arriving at Dulles, Afghan refugees go to U.S. military bases for health exams and paperwork. They will then be connected with a partner resettlement organization such as Lutheran Social Services, which will help them with housing.

These organizations provide invaluable services, say advocates, but they can only do so much. New arrivals rely on good Samaritans like Mirriam Seddiq to fill in the gaps. 

Ms. Seddiq, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer from northern Virginia, created an Amazon wish list last week with everything she thought someone starting over would need: towels, underwear, children’s clothing, and more. She tweeted out a link to her wish list page, which then got retweeted by larger accounts, and 24 hours later more than 80 Amazon boxes arrived at her door. The next day 170 boxes arrived. Then 260. She had started storing the donations in her garage, but soon had to move to two storage units. 

In just a few days, Ms. Seddiq has collected $18,000 in donations and more than 1,000 boxes from Amazon. 

“We are supposed to have words for our feelings, but I don’t think I do,” says Ms. Seddiq, who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan as a toddler. “I’m horrified and devastated, but at the same time I’m positively floored by the kindness of these people.”

After seeing the need – and gratitude – of refugees who have taken what they need from the storage units, Ms. Seddiq hopes to continue this work. She is completing paperwork to be recognized as a nonprofit organization called Komak, which means “help” in Pashto. And Ms. Seddiq already has at least two dozen organizers – all of them the children of Afghan refugees. 

“The Muslim community is ready to help these families,” says Mr. Mehmood. “We have families offering rooms, food, everything.” 

Mr. Mehmood interrupts himself to call a man named Abid, an Afghan refugee who arrived in July. The two men talk about the next steps in a job search: Abid was a skilled construction worker in Afghanistan, and Mr. Mehmood is helping him find work in America. 

But before hanging up, Abid reminds Mr. Mehmood to tell him about any upcoming volunteer opportunities to help the newest refugees. Mr. Mehmood tells Abid he is about to drive to Dulles with 50 backpacks for the children who have just landed. Abid says he would love to come and help, but he doesn’t have a car. 

“Don’t worry,” says Mr. Mehmood. “I’ll pick you up.”

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