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Welcoming the stranger

With an influx of Afghan refugees, one group models how to build friendships with newcomers

Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer game in Fort McCoy, Wisc. Barbara Davidson/AP

Welcoming the stranger

IT’S SUNDAY AFTERNOON, and two families gathered at a hotel parking lot in Fredericksburg, Va., for a special visitation. Zion Twum, a tall 17-year-old, prayed: “Lord, please help us share the love of Christ and make them feel welcome here.”

The large group–the Twums, with five boys ages 6 to 17, and the Joneses, with two teenage boys and two teenage girls—were part of Welcome Families, a new interchurch effort in which local Christian families or individuals commit to one year of friendship with an Afghan family resettling in the area. Welcome Families visits an “adopted” Afghan family once a week for six months, and at least once a month for the next six months.

With welcome gifts in hand—the Twums baked loaves of apple-and-spice bread, and the Joneses bought nuts, dates, and loose tea leaves—the two families ambled into the narrow hotel hallway.

The Afghan woman who answered her door didn’t seem fazed by the large group. She insisted they all sit for chai or tea. The American families filed into the tiny hotel room, looming over the Afghan family in height and numbers, while the Afghan woman, Mary, repeated in Dari, “You’re still standing! Please, please sit!”

The American families squeezed onto the floor cross-legged while Mary apologized for not having enough seats. Her family of six had lived in that hotel room for a month, and before that, in a smaller motel room. They have been unable to find affordable housing. Mary’s husband had just started his second day working at Walmart.

Mary (WORLD is using a pseudonym because she has family in danger in Afghanistan) wore an auburn tunic and a green hijab. They have three teenage boys and a cherub-cheeked 12-year-old girl, who brewed loose green tea and filled plastic platters with nuts, green raisins, and candies. They poured the hot beverage into glasses from white thermoses.

Those thermoses are some of the few items they brought with them from Afghanistan. Now in a strange country, they face an uncertain future with few friends and the mix of survivor’s guilt, sadness, shock, and relief. That’s why Welcome Families’ founder, Debra Smith, founded the group and helped introduce the Twums and Joneses to Mary’s family.

The Twums’ 6-year-old stood frozen with saucer eyes, refusing to move when his father invited him to sit on his lap. Mary knelt on the floor across from the boy and fed him a piece of caramel and smiled: “Thank you for coming. Your family is very beautiful. From the moment we were introduced, you are like family to me.”

A family of Afghan refugees moves into their apartment in the Queens borough of New York.

A family of Afghan refugees moves into their apartment in the Queens borough of New York. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

MARY’S FAMILY IS ONE of the few thousand special immigrant visa (SIV) holders who left Afghanistan this summer just before the government fell to the Taliban. During the following frenzied two weeks of evacuation, the United States airlifted 124,000 Afghans out of Kabul. Before being allowed to enter the United States, every individual goes through multiple layers of security screening and vetting, including reviews of biographic and biometric data.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 34,000 Afghan evacuees have been vetted and are currently staying in seven military installments across the country, with thousands more stationed in sites in Europe and the Middle East. An additional 30,000 may arrive in the United States through the next year. So far, about 25,000 Afghans have resettled in communities throughout the nation.

Some have SIVs, some are in various stages of applying for SIVs, and some are family members of American citizens or lawful permanent residents. But the majority come under humanitarian parole, an emergency permit that allows Afghan nationals to stay in the United States on a case-by-case basis for two years. Humanitarian parole is the quickest option for high-risk individuals such as human rights activists, journalists, and humanitarian workers to enter the country.

Parolees don’t usually qualify for government benefits and services, but Afghans granted parole between July 31, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2022, can apply for the same federal benefits available to refugees, such as cash, medical assistance, food stamps, and English language training. Most parolees will likely file for asylum, but that system already has a backlog of 1.4 million cases.

Most Afghans stay in military bases awaiting security screenings and capacity at resettlement agencies to open. Many will live indefinitely in barracks and tent structures in military bases for months even as winter sweeps in.

It’s also unclear how long the American public’s interest in welcoming these Afghans will last. Though polls show bipartisan support for receiving Afghans, Republicans are still more wary than Democrats. Several Republican politicians and conservative commentators have expressed concerns that the rushed evacuation could have allowed potential terrorists to slip through the vetting process. And despite tight security at military bases, crime still happens: Two Afghan evacuees are in federal custody—one charged with engaging in a sexual act with a minor, another for spousal abuse. The FBI is also investigating a Fort Bliss female service member’s report that a group of Afghan males assaulted her.

Meanwhile, resettlement agencies are unprepared for the sudden speed and volume of Afghans needing help. The hollowed-out refugee resettlement infrastructure is recovering from the historic-low refugee admissions during the Trump administration. More than 100 resettlement agencies closed their offices, losing long-term relationships with local churches, landlords, and businesses. On Sept. 30, Congress passed a spending bill that includes $6.3 billion in supplemental funding for Afghan resettlement, a boost to resettlement agencies scrambling to hire new staff.

The Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, one of the primary resettlement agencies in Northern Virginia, helped resettle 200 Afghan SIVs between August and September after resettling fewer than 400 people the entire year before. “It was a significant stress and challenge for our agency,” said President and CEO Stephen Carattini. This year, Carattini anticipates resettling 800 individuals in the area.

Many local employers are eager to hire them, but the biggest challenge is finding affordable housing. Staff at resettlement agencies must help refugees find housing, employment, and schools. They work with their clients for 90 days, then services trickle away, even though Afghans’ needs will stretch for far longer.

Mary’s family was still in a hotel after more than 75 days in Fredericksburg, and her children had not yet been enrolled in school because they lack a permanent address. They also have no car. A friend gave Mary’s husband a ride to work that weekend, but he has no transportation on weekdays.

That’s where local community efforts such as Welcome Families can fill the gaps.

About 34,000 Afghan evacuees have been vetted and are currently staying in eight military installments across the country.

Welcome Families began with Debra Smith, who spent three years as an ESL teacher in Kabul and more than a decade building relationships with Afghan families in Fredericksburg.

Smith is a Norwegian-blooded American with elbow-length golden curls and blue eyes, but her heart lies with Afghans. In 2013, she seriously considered returning to Afghanistan, then noticed a burgeoning Afghan community in her city after Congress created an SIV path for Afghans in 2006 and 2009. Between 2001 and 2013, 2,300 Afghans received green cards. That number exploded to 12,300 between 2014 and 2019, the majority through SIVs. Today, the Northern Virginia–DC metro area has the largest Afghan population in the country (Sacramento and San Francisco are a close second).

The fact that Smith is a blond-haired American who speaks conversational Dari turned her into a mini-celebrity among the Afghan community. She’ll be lunching on wilted salad at a park, and more often than not, an Afghan family on a picnic will recognize her and insist she toss aside her salad for kabuli pulao (basmati pilaf with lamb), skewers of kabobs, or her favorite dish, burani (braised eggplants with tomatoes and yogurt).

Smith met most of her Afghan friends through random encounters. She spots Afghan women at Walmart. When she greets them in Dari, they ask for her phone number and invite her over for chai. She met another new Afghan family in September while driving on a busy street. A woman and her three young boys were walking under the darkening sky. Smith pulled over and yelled out in Dari, “Do you need a ride?” That family had been living in a kitchenless motel for a month, subsisting mostly on snacks. The woman insisted Smith come in for juice, apologizing for the lack of chai.

Every Afghan Smith meets has family in Afghanistan, some in grave danger. They weep and beg Smith for help. In September, she had a spreadsheet with the information of 250 individuals whom she’s trying to help evacuate. In October, when I visited Smith, her spreadsheet had expanded to 350 names. Every family we visited wanted to talk about their loved ones. If their names weren’t on the spreadsheet, they pulled out their family members’ passport numbers, and Smith typed their information into her MacBook—but without much hope. She said she had had zero success in evacuating anyone.

Some of these family members were in the process of an SIV application when the Taliban took control. One Afghan man, who had waited four years for his SIV and resettled in Fredericksburg in 2018, said he has two brothers still waiting for their SIVs. Each day they beg him for help through WhatsApp. But he’s an immigrant working a minimum-wage job. It breaks his heart to tell his brothers, “There’s nothing I can do for you.”

It’s unclear how many SIV applicants and recipients remain stuck in Afghanistan, though a State Department official told the media that the United States was unable to evacuate “the majority” of SIVs, “just based on anecdotal information about the populations we were able to support.” That infuriates people like the man trying to help his brothers. He says it’s unfair that tens of thousands of non-SIV Afghans were evacuated while their family members, who were promised safety for helping the United States, remain. “My brothers did everything that was recommended,” he said. “America is big enough to take them all.”

Smith often can’t do much more than pray. She’s open about her Christian faith: “I follow Jesus the Messiah,” she tells them. They never say no when she offers to pray for them. Sometimes, they ask her to pray. Often she helps in additional ways.

One man called Smith asking if the letter he received is “free money.” It turned out to be a $150 traffic ticket. She spends time with women who are lonely while their husbands work. They love telling Smith about meeting their husbands and showing her pictures of family in Afghanistan. They also love feeding Smith: At any given day, empty Tupperware containers roll around her car, ready to go back to Afghan women who stuffed them with food.

But Smith is just one woman. Hence the creation of Welcome Families.

Afghan teens in Albuquerque, N.M.

Afghan teens in Albuquerque, N.M. Andrea Dicenzo/The New York Ti​mes/Redux

THE TWUMS AND THE JONESES were the first Welcome Families volunteers that Smith matched with an Afghan family.

Both families had undergone Smith’s three-hour orientation, in which she teaches participants what to expect, what the needs are, and why Christians should welcome sojourners.

Smith emphasizes that the needs are as unique as what you’d expect from any friendship: “You will drink a lot of chai, read a lot of mail, and maybe talk about Jesus quite a bit—and repeat.” Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, she says: “Remember, just as you’re trying to learn their culture, they’re also trying to acculturate to America.”

That day at Mary’s hotel room, Smith was present to interpret, but it’s up to the Welcome Families to continue the relationship after that. Mary, after feeling trapped in a hotel room for months, was eager to chat, even as her fingers cracked open pistachios for her guests. Whenever a guest finished her tea, the sharp-eyed Mary nodded, and one of her children swiftly filled the cup again.

There isn’t much to do here, Mary said. “What can we do? We’re sojourners. We’ve been wandering from place to place. We don’t know the language here, the customs, nothing. It’s been very hard.” Tears dripped on her hijab. She wiped her eyes and continued shelling pistachios.

She didn’t want to leave Afghanistan, she said, even though her family waited four years for SIVs. They had a good life there. But then the Taliban began encroaching, dragging men from their houses and killing them. Her husband urged her, “We have to go now, before it’s too late.” At the time, Mary refused to leave her ill mother. But she too insisted, “Go.”

They left on Aug. 14, a day before Kabul fell. Had they waited one more day, they would have been like her brother, uncles, and brothers-in-law who had worked for the U.S. embassy but now live in fear in Afghanistan. They burned all the documents that prove their ties to the United States. Mary worries about them constantly. Two months after they arrived in the United States, Mary’s mother died. “Life is like this,” Mary sighed. “There’s sweetness, there’s bitterness. May God give us mercy.”

Nora Twum, 47, told me that as a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she was familiar with the disorienting immigrant experience. Her husband, Willis, immigrated to the United States from Ghana when he was 19. “We just want to be the hands and feet of Christ, and show the love of Christ to those who don’t know Him,” Twum said.

By the end of that visit, the Twums and Joneses had exchanged phone numbers with Mary. They decided to get Mary’s husband an Uber gift card for transportation to work. Willis Twum challenged Mary’s older sons to a soccer match—“I feel bad for you, because we’re really good. Bring it on!”—and the women planned to take Mary on a walk to the park.

As the Americans shuffled out of the hotel room, Mary kissed the women on both cheeks: “Thank you for your compassion. You shared my pain. I feel like we’re one family. God be kind to you for being our new friends.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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