Press Club

A community Facebook group helps Afghan refugees start a new life in America

When the Taliban took over his native Afghanistan in August, Mir knew that he and his family needed to get out.

He was confident they would be a target because he was a contractor assisting the United Kingdom, United States, and NATO with communications and information technology.

“If I stayed in the country, the [Taliban] probably would have killed me,” he tells ARLnow (we are withholding his last name for privacy reasons).

After obtaining a visa, the family embarked on a harrowing journey that took them from the place they called home their entire lives to Northern Virginia. It was the first time that Mir had ever left Afghanistan.

While Mir, his wife, and his nine-month-old baby are now safe in America, they arrived here with nothing.

“I didn’t even have one dollar to buy a diaper for my son,” Mir says, speaking via Zoom from his Alexandria apartment.

That’s when Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA) got involved, a Facebook group created by military veteran Ryan Elizabeth Alvis to help Afghans resettle in the area.

“When Afghan families arrive, they [come] with nothing but the clothes on their back,” says Alvis, who lives in the Bluemont neighborhood. “We want to welcome these families in the way they deserve to our community. And that takes the involvement of the average citizen.”

This was all a grassroots effort. After seeing the images on television and knowing from her own experience serving in Afghanistan as a Marine in the early 2010s, Alvis knew she needed to help.

She reached out to other nonprofit groups that were organizing efforts. While waiting for a response back, Alvis created the Facebook group. Soon after, she got a tip about a newly arrived family in Reston who was looking for help and supplies. So, she organized an effort through the group to get the family what they needed.

Quickly, word spread.

“I got a phone call from another Afghan family who had been given my phone number,” she says. “And that’s how it grew… with cold calls.”

Since starting in October, about 500 ANWA members have helped 58 families resettle in Northern Virginia in ways big and small, everything from providing furniture to contributing money for food to navigating how to set up Wi-Fi.

In all, more than 4,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in Virginia over the last year, according to InsideNoVa.

When a new request comes in from a family, Alvis assigns “team leads” to help that family. In turn, those team leads post in the group asking for specific things the family needs. Alvis anticipates the group continuing to be active until at least April.

So far, the group has raised about $20,000 for food and household items and is raising more through GoFundMe.

It’s not simply dollars, though, that Arlington community members are contributing. It’s their time and effort.

Volunteers Karen Penn and Christy McIntyre are Mir and his family’s “team leads.” They make requests on the family’s behalf in the Facebook group for household items, organize drop-offs, and generally assist with anything that’s needed.

That includes helping to navigate the Metrobus system, which was understandably daunting for Mir.

Both Penn and McIntyre note how rewarding, humbling, and inspiring it is to spend time with the recent American arrivals.

“[Mir and his family] are really starting over. It’s just amazing how resilient they are,” says Penn, who lives in the Leeway-Overlee neighborhood.

McIntyre, who lives in Arlington Forest, says the experience has been eye-opening, realizing that something that may seem tiny can make a huge difference for someone.

“If everybody does something small, if a lot of people come together, we can do amazing things,” she says. “The Arlington community stepped up big, really big. And they continue to do so for other families. I’m just so proud of our community.”

Mir knows there remain plenty of challenges ahead for him, even with being safe in Alexandria.

He’s currently looking for a job in the information technology industry, having applied to nearly 100 so far. He’s also looking to potentially go back to school, since the degrees he earned in Afghanistan can sometimes not translate in America.

Mir also worries about the fate of his family still in Afghanistan, like his mother, brother, and sister-in-law. He recently got to see their faces when he virtually attended his brother’s wedding.

“I couldn’t talk for 10 minutes,” he says about how emotional it was to see them.

But being in America, he says, has allowed him to dream of a future for his young son that includes opportunities, education and freedom. He’s also envisioning a great future for himself as well.

“I’ve researched Elon Musk. He started from nothing and now he’s going to Mars on a spaceship,” he says. “I want to make myself not Elon Musk, but more than Elon Musk.”

Mir explains that this is all possible because of the help he received from ANWA when he first arrived in Northern Virginia not only with groceries, internet, and furniture, but with something just as valuable: love and support.

“I now have four mothers. My original mother and Karen, Ryan, and Christy. They’ve helped me like my own mother,” Mir says. “They’ve supported me with moving to America. They are family.”

ANWA is still accepting new members and always needs volunteers. Request to join the group here. 

This article was funded by the members of the ARLnow Press Club.

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