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Afghan refugees who have settled outside D.C. now help others to do the same

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

This week marks six months since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and six months since the hasty and chaotic U.S. withdrawal. Thousands of Afghan refugees were sent to the U.S. for resettlement - many to northern Virginia, where there is a thriving Afghan community. NPR's Hiba Ahmad went to a new resettlement office just outside of Washington, D.C., that is mostly run by new arrivals themselves.

HIBA AHMAD, BYLINE: Tucked away in a suburban neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., is the Peace Lutheran Church. This is where Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, or LIRS, has set up a new satellite office to help with the sudden influx of Afghan refugees in the state. They've helped almost a thousand refugees in just three months. New arrivals weave in and out of the offices, getting help with paperwork for services like Medicaid and temporary housing. And they get that help from a largely Afghan staff, many of the recent refugees themselves. Here, Roya Abbassi and her case manager Ahmad Amiry are reviewing the lease for her new apartment.

ROYA ABBASSI: (Unintelligible) Renter's insurance.

AHMAD AMIRY: (Non-English language spoken).

AHMAD: Roya is 25 and a pharmacist from Logar. She was evacuated by U.S. forces. And when she came to the resettlement center, Roya was nervous about what her new life in the U.S. would look like.

ABBASSI: Are they going to accept us? What will be their reaction? And what it will be, like, most of the people? Maybe they will not be fine with refugees, or maybe I will not get the job.

AHMAD: Roya is meeting with her case manager, Ahmad Amiry, who himself was evacuated in August with his family and knows how important it is for Afghans to help each other navigate these first few months.

AMIRY: Our Afghan sister and brother, they really need our help, our support. We have to take care of each other.

AHMAD: The decision to staff the office with Afghan refugees was a conscious one, says LIRS President Krish O'Mara Vignarajah.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: It's not just their linguistic and cultural capabilities. It's their firsthand experience with what it's like to rebuild a life in a brand-new country.

AHMAD: Maiwand Basiri knows those challenges well.

MAIWAND BASIRI: Starting everything from zero, it's difficult for a person coming from Afghanistan. Life is very different there. Life is easy there, even though it's simple, but it's way easier than the American life.

AHMAD: Maiwand and his family were evacuated in August, too. He said the resettlement process is hard, but Maiwand has a cousin here in the States, as well as other contacts. He says those connections helped him understand why it's important for Afghans to help other Afghans.

BASIRI: I know what process they go through, what questions they have, what things they want to hear. And especially if they can hear it from a native speaker, you know, it's going to put them on ease.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Depression or anxiety or post-traumatic - we have to have the plan in place for the next step.

SYED AHMAD GAWHARI: Yeah. Then we can categorize the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, what's an emergency.

GAWHARI: Yeah, the emergency, the risk...

AHMAD: Dr. Syed Ahmad Gawhari is a trained physician and public health official from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Before Kabul was taken by the Taliban, he was working with the health ministry to combat COVID-19 in the region. He became infected, and so did his father, who later died over the summer. Because of his work with foreign organizations, Dr. Gawhari was told he should evacuate. The decision, he said, was agonizing.

GAWHARI: Though I wrote many emails that I cannot leave my mom here alone, please include her in my case, but nobody responded.

AHMAD: But for the sake of his five children, he decided to leave Afghanistan. Now at the resettlement office, he oversees health screenings of new arrivals and helps them navigate a new medical system. Dr. Gawhari has noticed two common trends - people were having trouble sleeping, and...

GAWHARI: I found many cases with mental health issues. And it's normal because this displacement for refugees, this is a trauma. So when they are traumatized, somehow it will reflect in their body.

HAFIFA SIDDIQ: So basically, what you're talking about is, like, physiologically, the stress, you know, being activated in the body, putting somebody in a fight-or-flight mode.

AHMAD: That's Hafifa Siddiq. She's a nurse and assistant professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. She says poor mental health outcomes are linked to the multiple traumas refugees faced before they flee their country and during the resettlement process.

SIDDIQ: Some of these things are, like, economic stressors, difficulty adjusting, loss of social support, which leads to being isolated or disconnected from the broader community.

AHMAD: Dr. Gawhari acknowledges the grueling resettlement process for both new arrivals and the staff, but he recalls something he saw at the airport when he first arrived in the U.S. It was a sign that read, how can I help you?

GAWHARI: I never heard this word. But how can I help you is a term which is commonly used in the U.S. So how can I help you? Yeah. Then I found we are really, you know, helpful people. I love that.

AHMAD: Hiba Ahmad, NPR News, Alexandria, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.