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In Los Angeles, An Afghan Refugee Helps Welcome New Arrivals Who 'Came With Nothing'

Wahidullah Asghary lives in Burbank, Calif., and is a program enrollment coordinator for Miry’s List. He is pictured with his children from left to right: Mina, Musawir and Mudasir. They left Afghanistan in 2020 as refugees for their new home in the U.S. (Tonya Mosley/Here & Now)
Wahidullah Asghary lives in Burbank, Calif., and is a program enrollment coordinator for Miry’s List. He is pictured with his children from left to right: Mina, Musawir and Mudasir. They left Afghanistan in 2020 as refugees for their new home in the U.S. (Tonya Mosley/Here & Now)

Thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are starting over in small towns and big cities throughout the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 49,000 refugees have arrived so far with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

The vast majority of them are being housed at eight military bases across the country. Some of the resettlement efforts, however, according to the State Department, have been stalled by a measles outbreak at some military bases.

This week, the Biden administration began notifying governors of how many refugees will arrive in their states.

Many more are still waiting to get out of Afghanistan. Those are the people Wahidullah Asghary is thinking about. This time last year, he was one of them.

“I was at risk. I was thinking that, so if I do not go to the United States, maybe one day the U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan,” he says.

For several years, Asghary was a translator for the U.S. government. In 2019, he applied for a special immigrant visa and boarded a plane for the U.S. as his wife stayed behind to wrap up their lives in Afghanistan.

That meant Asghary had to travel on his own with four children in tow, including a 1-year-old baby boy.

“It was a challenging time for me. It was really tough to handle all the kids,” he says. “You know, they have a lot of responsibilities with the doctor and appointments and the school things.”

On one sunny afternoon in Burbank, California, Asghary’s kids had just gotten out of school — a new and exciting routine for them after taking virtual classes, without knowing any English, last year.

Six-year-old Mudasir was eager to watch some TV as Asghary’s wife put their youngest, Miraj, down for a nap. Nine-year-old twins Mina and Musawir were hoping to play some of their favorite games, like tag or hide and seek.

It was a typical, uneventful day in the U.S. — exactly what Asghary says he’s been dreaming about for his family.

“Their future is really bright,” he says. The father of four says he talks to his children about what’s to come, encouraging them to pick any profession they like.

But it’s sometimes hard to focus on their future. He spends most of his nights on the phone with his mother, father and brother — all of whom are still in Afghanistan. They talk about all of the other Afghans who desperately want out but can’t leave.

“Each one of them — males and females, old and young — they are thinking about ‘we want to leave the country’ because of lack of security they might face and their life is at risk,” he says. “And they are thinking about just trying to go and live and start a new life, especially maybe in the United States or other countries.”

Miry Whitehill was one of the first to welcome Asghary and his children to the U.S. as the founder of the nonprofit Miry’s List based in Los Angeles. She’s the person that greets refugees with a big smile and a welcome box filled with brand-new items in her arms.

Inside is a lot of stuff some of us take for granted, like how-to lists in both Farsi and English, which gives instructions on how to get a driver’s license, register kids for school and get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Then there are the personal touches like letters — piles of welcome letters from people all over the country. Each box gets one.

“Welcome to the United States. It takes a lot to move somewhere from far. So you should be proud of yourselves,” Whitehill reads from one letter. “I hope you like your new home.”

The letters hold additional meaning to Whitehill who sees firsthand what refugees go through when they arrive in the U.S. “This is the human touch,” she says.

Whitehill’s garage stores rows of boxes waiting for a hand-written letter to be carefully placed on top. She wants to make certain the letter is the first thing the Afghan families see when they open the boxes.

“That’s just the best part of this job. I get to see people at their best. I meet people who are in the mode of giving,” she explains. “And also, I meet people who are in the mode of being willing to make themselves vulnerable and make a new friend.”

Whitehill started the effort back in 2016 after a friend told her about a new family from Syria that needed a few basic things, like a baby bouncer. This galvanized her to do more.

Today, Miry’s List is one of many the State Department calls on as part of a larger collective to help families resettle around the U.S.

Recently, she’s received a record number of referrals. Although Miry’s List has assisted 620 families across 21 states, in the five years since the nonprofit first started, she says the national and global support needed for refugees fleeing violence is much greater than one organization can provide.

Whitehill sees the arrival of Afghan refugees as an opportunity for America to, in a way, start to heal itself from the political and social divides. And she thinks that healing starts with simple acts of kindness.

She recalls a phone call she had last week with an Air Force commander at a base nearby.

“He said, ‘I’d really like to write some welcome letters to your families with the other military families on our base. Is that something that we could do through your organization?’ And I said absolutely because that is how we form deep connections and bonds,” she says.

Asghary, the Afghan refugee who arrived in California in 2020, now works for Miry’s List. It’s the perfect job for him for the time being because he gets to guide other refugees about a difficult experience he’s been through — how to completely start over.

“The families, including me, who came from Afghanistan, they came with nothing,” he says. “They have got no money. They have got no clothing. They are zero, including me.”

When he first got to the U.S., Asghary was stressed about the massive change and whether he could run his life in a new country.

And that’s still a challenge a year later, he says.

Tonya Mosley and Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Eileen BolinskySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.