Afghan Americans take refugee care into their own hands

Community members say they are best equipped to help Afghans adjust to life in the US

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Tammi and Zarah Abbasi’s Virginia home is a visual representation of the Afghan-American community’s response to the chaotic US withdrawal from its longest war.

The couple have transformed their house into a hub for refugee donation drop-offs. Over the past week, local donors have filled nearly every corner of the main floor with clothing, hygiene products, cookware and other contributions.

Local business owner Mr Abbasi says processing all of the donations has become a new job in itself, but a worthwhile one. This week alone, the donations they have collected have helped about 20 people.

“Out of the last few days, I’ve probably missed 60 hours of work just because I’m focusing on this, but this matters right now and this is more urgent,” he said.

“I’m so overwhelmed with the support the whole Afghan-American community has received, especially from neighbours. Just the Afghan Americans stepping up has been inspiring to say the least.”

Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban rule are landing daily at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. Thousands more are expected before the August 31 end to the US airlift from Kabul.

Several of the new arrivals had only hours to uproot their lives and leave loved ones, jobs and support networks in Afghanistan, and they are landing in the US with few possessions.

Most will be temporarily accommodated at a processing site at the Dulles Expo Centre, a 12,000-square-metre convention hall that typically hosts trade and corporate events.

An Afghan boy boards a bus taking refugees to a processing centre at Dulles International Airport. Reuters

Many of the refugees will be sent to military installations across the US, but some, like the families the Abbasis are helping, are resettling in the area.

Local organisers have largely been blocked from delivering aid to the expo centre, and say better government guidance is needed.

Afghan-American activist Mariam Mustafa says she was first told she could deliver lorryloads of donations to the expo centre, but when she arrived, local police and federal officials blocked her.

“The Biden administration is really failing us,” she said. “They knew this would happen. [US President Joe] Biden did make a note that they were going to evacuate August 31. They should have had plans and processes three months in advance, so it’s really disappointing.”

A US government employee volunteering inside the expo centre told The National that the situation there is “highly unorganised” and “needs better leadership”, but that officials are doing their best in a chaotic situation.

The volunteer added they believe the operation will run more efficiently in a week's time.

The Abbasis say that Afghan Americans are best equipped to serve as cultural mediators for the new arrivals, especially amid heightened fears after Washington’s withdrawal.

“This trust was really broken … [families I met] were like, what if the Americans in America do the same thing to us? What if they abandon us when we get to this completely new country?” Ms Abbasi said.

“But once they saw how we treated them, us Afghan Americans, and even the non-Afghan Americans volunteering, they said wow … these are the people we really can trust.”

The Abbasis say they have found Afghan refugee families resettling in the area “through the grapevine effect” within the Afghan-American community, and that social media has been their biggest ally.

The couple makes two trips for each family they deliver donated goods to. The first is to meet them and determine their needs, the second is to deliver the donations.

Mr Abbasi believes it his responsibility to help support families as they integrate into American life.

“I met a family on Sunday … I asked them, ‘Do you have anything to eat tonight?’ And he said that yes, someone had brought him food yesterday and they could heat that up,” said Mr Abbasi.

“I said no, no, no. This is America and we eat good on Sunday … So, I went out and bought him dinner for five.”

Underneath piles of donation boxes and bags, hints of the Abbasis' normal home life peek through.

An entryway table barely visible under clutter, a small space for sitting still available on the living room couch. The chaos at their home is worth it, they say, because of the sense of solidarity and relief it brings families fleeing their homeland.

“I've seen their smiles when you give them that new item. A brand new T-shirt for them goes a long way,” Ms Abbasi said. “The smiles on their faces when they get those things is unimaginable.”

Ms Mustafa, the activist, said the US government has a responsibility to show refugee families the level of care that community members like the Abbasis have, and argues the Biden administration must not simply prioritise US citizens in its move out of Afghanistan.

“Every life matters,” she said.

Updated: August 26, 2021, 11:15 AM