'Not alone': helping Afghan evacuees feel at home in the US

·3-min read

In a warehouse outside the US capital, a dozen volunteers were busy loading tables, chairs, beds and couches to ready an apartment for Afghans evacuated from Kabul and thrust into new lives in the United States.

List in hand, Laura Thompson Osuri, director of the Homes Not Borders nonprofit, steers efforts to kit out new homes for Afghans arriving in the thousands amid the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation.

The warehouse, located in the Washington suburb of Landover, has transformed into a sort of Ali Baba's cave with a deluge of donations in recent weeks.

Osuri scales shelves and rummages through boxes to collect furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils, glasses and plates, as volunteers work their way through piles of goods to extract a leather sofa and load it into a car.

Homes Not Borders, established in 2019 in Maryland, is one of several organizations active throughout the country that supports refugees and specializes in furnishing housing provided on their arrival.

Since the hardline Islamist Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan in mid-August, sparking a massive evacuation of Afghan civilians from the Kabul airport, the number of resettlements Homes Not Borders handles has shot up.

"We did one to two a week and now we're doing, like, four to six a week," Osuri said.

New arrivals receive around $1,200 from federal authorities to buy basic furniture such as beds or tables.

"Without us donating them, they'd have to pay for them on their own, so we provide, above and beyond (so) they can spend on other things when they arrive," she explained.

Long-time volunteer Levan Kuck said the aim is to help new arrivals quickly feel at home.

"We make it very homey, we have art on the walls... we try to make it look like it's our home, color coordinate and everything," she said.

- 'Here to help them' -

One recent morning, volunteers gathered home goods for an Afghan couple coming to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa issued to those who worked with US authorities and now fear reprisals from the Taliban.

The couple has been living in an apartment rented on Airbnb since their arrival and are soon due to move into an apartment building complex in Riverdale, east of Washington.

The complex is home to other Afghans who have gone through the hard adjustment of settling in a new country after being uprooted.

"Place, people, house, culture, everything was different," said Masuda Stanekzi, 37, who arrived from Afghanistan in November 2017 with her husband, a translator for the United States in Kabul, and their four children.

"But we saw people have prepared our house, things we need for our house, put food in the refrigerator, small carpet, sofa, dining table, we really appreciated it, felt comfortable," said the former nurse, who lives in a duplex apartment.

Getting used to this new life "was not easy," but the family benefited from the help of their Afghan neighbors, and they plan to do the same for the new arrivals.

When they are settled in Riverdale, "we will be happy. We ask them (if) they need help... for example, I can drive. I can help them when they want to go somewhere," said Stanekzi.

"All Afghan people, they want help. We can't help over there, but at least we can help them when they come here. They ask for help, we will be ready to help them."

Private donation initiatives are also multiplying across the United States to help recent Afghan evacuees start anew.

"We are here to help them, they are not alone," said Fatima Popal, whose family owns several restaurants in Washington and who is organizing the collection of clothes, basic necessities and other goods for the new arrivals.

"I know nobody wants to leave their homeland," said the 41-year-old, recalling her own escape from Afghanistan in 1987, when the conflict-wracked country was occupied by the Soviet army.

"We were also refugees, from a different war."

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