An Afghan family’s daunting resettlement, and the local parents who want to help
Both were simultaneously terrified and thrilled. Zar, who had worked as a primary schoolteacher before the new regime seized power, prayed for another son; she knew what the future would be — or what it couldn’t be — if she delivered a little girl under Taliban rule.
Mohammad, however, was seized by the conviction that they were pregnant with a girl. “I knew that her future will be black in Afghanistan,” he says. “I knew we had to leave there, at any cost.”
The cost would be high: A sudden flight from the home they’d always known and the many family members they loved; an arrival in a foreign country, with no belongings to their name; a complete reliance on others to help them find community and reorient themselves in a new life as they prepared to welcome their baby in early October.
Eight months later and 7,000 miles away, on an overcast September afternoon, Mohammad, 30, Zar, 27, and 5-year-old Mubariz watch through the window of a small one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Va., as the visitor they’re awaiting pulls into the parking lot below. Michelle Cooper’s car is packed with bags of clothing, furniture, toys and baby gear she has been carefully collecting for days, destined for the modest home on the second floor where the young family of refugees has lived since June.
I am honored to do my part to help others, just as my family helped me a few generations back. Cooper wrote Mohammad explaining that she would equip his family with all the nursery supplies needed.
This is what we call humanity. Mohammad responded. We are so grateful to you all.
Mohammad and Zar are no longer living in constant fear for their family’s safety; before the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mohammad had worked for an American international development company, which made him a target of the Taliban. (The family is being identified using their first or middle names to protect the safety relatives still in Afghanistan.
The transition to a new life in a foreign country was difficult. There was no one there to greet them when they got off the plane at Dulles International Airport June 2. Zar finally saw a doctor two months later, after which it took Zar several days to get a caseworker from an aid agency to call them back. Zar also had to wait for two months until he could visit them at their hotel. Zar’s pregnancy progressed normally. The family has often felt left adrift as they’ve tried to adjust to this new reality, Mohammad says, and despite his qualifications and fervent desire to work again, he has yet to find a job that will allow him to provide for his growing family.
In the midst of what has been a chaotic and stressful resettlement for so many refugee families, networks of local parent volunteers — including Cooper, a 48-year-old mother of two in D.C. — have emerged, working furiously to help bridge some of the gaps left by understaffed and overwhelmed aid agencies. These parents have helped to furnish apartments, set up nurseries, assisted with school enrollments and job applications, driven people to doctors and dentist appointments, collected diapers and groceries, and collected many hand-me-down toys and clothes. They also spent time listening and learning from the families that haven’t had the chance to share everything they have been through.
Md. It was an incredible journey. An Afghan family has reached a quiet milestone.
After carrying their deliveries to Mohammad and Zar’s apartment, Cooper and her 11-year-old daughter, Raleigh, sit on a couch in the tidy living room, sipping from cups of juice offered by their hosts. “Your home is beautiful,” Cooper says. “You’ve settled in so quickly.”
“When we left Afghanistan, we had nothing,” Mohammad says. “We had —” he tugs gently at the collar of his shirt; they had only the clothes they were wearing.
They talk for a while about their life before, and their life now — how happy their son is to go to school, and how quickly he is already learning words and phrases in English after just one month in kindergarten. They are not afraid for him to leave the house in the morning. Beyond the Taliban threat, Afghan children were often kidnapped and held as ransom. Mohammad claims that every day he called Zar from his office in order to make sure Mubariz was home.
“There were criminals who would kidnap the children, for just a small amount of money, and if they don’t get it, they kill,” he says. “They don’t care.” As he speaks, Raleigh slips quietly from the couch to the floor to sit beside Mubariz, helping him sift through a box of new toys.
“I can’t imagine,” Cooper says softly. “I am so glad you’re here.”
Mohammad’s gaze settles on his little boy as he happily wheels a small blue and white truck over the carpet.
“We are here today,” Mohammad says, and again, as if to truly believe it: “Now we are here.”
In the waning Days of the Afghanistan war, August 2021. As desperate masses swarmed Kabul’s airport, Lydia Weiss couldn’t turn her back from the news.
Weiss was a 48-year old mother of two living in Northwest D.C. and was about to take a sabbatical. “I thought: This is what I want to do,” she says. “I want to help.”
Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area connected her with Weiss and she signed up to furnish a family of refugees a new apartment. Weiss says the experience was so rewarding that she has built a network with local parents who offer their help, time, supplies, and money.
“I really tapped my kids’ school community, big-time,” she says. “I used the Buy Nothing and the Neighborhood Facebook pages. I used local listservs. I emailed Everyone.”
Nearly 150 volunteers joined her efforts, most of them mothers working moms. This, she feels, is at the heart of what compels them: the universality of wanting a better life for one’s child, and the empathy to imagine how it might feel to endure such trauma as a family.
“We help with job résumés, we set up playdates with their kids, we bring them the things they need when a new baby is coming, we help get them oriented with how to use public transportation in their neighborhoods,” Weiss says. “What drives my group of women is just that we’re always trying to think like a mom; we know how to solve these kinds of problems.”
Those moments of exchange and connection “still choke me up every time,” Weiss says. “Often there is no language in common. All that is in common is parenthood.”
When Megan Flores, executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center, recently offered Weiss a list of expectant families in need of nursery supplies, Weiss paired Mohammad and Zar with Cooper, who was among Weiss’s circle of volunteers but had yet to coordinate a donation drive herself. Cooper was both excited and nervous about the task, she says.
“As somebody who is Jewish, I think about the plight of migration from the beginning of time all the way through to when my own ancestors were coming to this country,” Cooper says. “I know that I am a beneficiary, generations later, of someone else’s kindness. And I love being able to pay that forward a little bit.”
Flores says this sort of matchmaking — pairing individual volunteers or groups of volunteers with refugee families — has been especially vital over the past year, as aid agencies have been overwhelmed.
She says it is complicated because aid agencies have to deal with an extraordinary amount of demand and staff shortages. But “some of these refugee families have never seen their caseworker,” Flores says. “There’s no excuse for the way that some of these families have been treated.”
Lutheran Social Services spokesperson noted the remarkable increase in demand since last summer. “We went from accepting 500 people for an entire year for resettlement, to 500 a month for resettlement,” the spokesperson said. In a written statement, the agency added, “Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area continues to proudly provide resettlement services to the largest number of Afghan Allies on the East Coast since last summer.”
Flores states that it is deeply rewarding to see how personal interactions between local residents, refugee families and refugees can make a difference in people’s lives.
“It’s one thing to write a check to an organization, but it’s another thing to go to someone’s house and really see their situation firsthand,” she says. “These families have been shuffled through the system … to have someone stop and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What do you require? What have you been through?’ That means so much.”
It was night of Aug. 9, 2021 when Mohammad stood on the roof of his family’s home in Mazar e-Sharif, watching as Taliban fighters swarmed the streets. Zar and Mohammad then packed Mubariz with their relatives from Kabul into a car. They traveled nine hours south, passing through panicked thousands of people at the airport gates.
“The Taliban kept shooting, a rain of bullets was coming down from the sky. I was not worried about myself, but I was worried about my son and my wife,” Mohammad said. “My son, he had never seen such terrible things before. I think he will never forget.”
The family never thought of leaving the country before the American withdrawal. “I had a good salary, I had all my family there,” Mohammad says. “We had a hope that one day all people there will live under peace.”
For many months, they didn’t know if they would be able to escape. One April morning, the U.S. State Department called Mohammad and his family with instructions to immediately travel to Kabul. They were told they had no time to prepare and that they could not bring any personal belongings. Mohammad’s father was at work; he couldn’t make it home in time to hug his son goodbye.
Mohammad’s voice breaks when he recounts their abrupt departure, and their fear for the family left behind. “These things are not in my control,” he says. “I want to cry, but I want to be strong.”
However, they were also relieved to leave, he said. Zar and he were bound first for Qatar. They kept believing that they were finally free. “We were laughing on the plane,” he says. “We had nothing, but we were so happy.”
Mohammad says that Zar and his wife Zar were without access to medical care for many months between their departure from Afghanistan, and their arrival in America. They finally saw a new doctor in mid-August, when he informed them that they were going to have a girl. Zar shared a laugh with Zar, and the thought of having a child brought them joy.
“I am so happy now, that she [will be] born here,” Zar says, “because here, I think her future is bright.”
Her future looks brighter too. Zar was an Afghan student of English and has already made plans for her daughter’s first year at school to take classes at a local library. There is a quiet determination to her voice when she speaks of this — “Soon, I will get started studying again, to improve myself,” she says — and Mohammad smiles proudly.
“She is a very hard-working lady,” he says of his wife, “and she can do whatever she wants.”
A wooden crib Their daughter is waiting in the small bedroom, where they will all sleep together. Cooper helped to carry the donation changing table into the room and placed it in one corner.
More deliveries will follow, Cooper promises — winter coats, and a few other items that didn’t fit in her car on this first trip. “We’d love to stay in touch, if there are things we can do to make sure you’re okay and comfortable and have what you need,” she says.
“Thank you so much for all you are doing,” Zar says.
Mohammad shares his last Afghan memory with their visitors before they leave. One cold morning on his way to work, he said that he passed a homeless family, all huddled together in the snowy ground. “They had a child, like my son,” he says. “They had no jackets. It was so cold. It was so cold.” The sight of them tormented him, he says, “so I went to my work, and I shared the story with my colleagues, and I said: ‘If we don’t help them tonight, they will be no more.’ ” His co-workers banded together, he says, and bought plentiful supplies to deliver to the family — tents, mattresses, dishes, food, clothing.
“We became so happy, from Here,” he says, smiling and placing his palm over his heart. There is a symmetry that resonates now, as he remembers that other version of his life, when he was the one in a position to give: “We helped them like you are helping us.”
“Oh,” Michelle says, mirroring his own gesture, placing her hand on her chest. “What you did was amazing, what we did was just a small —”
Mohammad shook his head and gently intervened. “I believe helping is not something ‘big’ or ‘small,’ ” he says. “It is always big.”