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A community Facebook group is still helping Afghan refugees start new lives

(Updated, 4:10 p.m.) It hasn’t been a perfect ten months, but Mir is happy to be alive.

It was nearly a year ago when he, his wife, and his young son were forced to leave their native Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s occupation and made their way to Northern Virginia.

As he told ARLnow back in January, Mir believed that if he had stayed in Afghanistan he would have been killed. We are withholding his last name at his request because of safety and privacy.

Once here, though, the members of Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA) Facebook group helped turn his new barren Alexandria apartment into a home.

ANWA was a grassroots effort started late last year by military veteran Ryan Elizabeth Alvis to assist newly arriving Afghan families adjust to Arlington and Alexandria.

Since October 2021, ANWA has assisted more than 100 families and raised over $30,000 to buy household items, and groceries, Alvis tells ARLnow. In that time, about 85 people have become “team leads,” as in they are directly in charge of helping the families.

The Facebook group now has more than 1,800 active members, many regularly chipping in to buy such things from school supplies to kitchen pressure cookers.

In the seven months since we last talked, Mir says he and his family are adjusting. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s forever grateful to the group, Alvis, and his “team leads” — Karen Penn and Christy McIntyre.

“I’m creating a good career in this country,” he says. “I’m very happy I’m here and that I’m safe.”

Probably the most difficult aspect has been job hunting, largely due to the fact that the degrees and certifications he earned in the information technology industry in Afghanistan do not apply here.

Mir has worked, though, first at the Alexandria City Schools as a substitute teacher and, now, as an assistant general manager at a hotel in Chantilly.

Penn, who still works with Mir plus several other families, says this is the case for many other Afghan refugees. Looking for a job in their trained industry is the biggest challenge since the schooling and training they did back home often isn’t accepted by employers in the United States.

She notes two examples, one person was a civil engineer and another a pilot in Afghanistan. Both have struggled to find jobs, despite being professionals.

“It’s really been a frustration of mine knowing how much these folks want to work and contribute to support their families,” Penn says, who lives in the Leeway-Overlee neighborhood. “The pilot that I know is applying for a job as a ramp agent at the airport. I mean, this is someone who flew planes and is now going to be applying for a job as a ramp agent. That’s humbling.”

Transportation has also been a challenge for Mir. He talked back in January about his understandable struggles figuring out the area’s bus system. He recently got a car of his own, though, which has allowed him to get to Chantilly every day for his new job.

Both Penn and Alvis tell ARLnow that the number of families that needed ANWA’s help started dwindling in April. However, just recently, it started to tick back up again. These are often families who, after leaving Afghanistan late last year, first went to Abu Dhabi or Qatar before now making their move to America.

“It’s the same scenario [as earlier this year]. They are given keys to an empty apartment and need help,” says Penn.

With this recent uptick, Penn recommends if folks want to assist, join the ANWA Facebook group. There, team leads post requests for supplies, goods, and funds all the time.

Despite the challenges, Mir remains very glad he was able to make it to America.

“I’m happy now that I’m alive and there’s a bright future for my son and my wife,” he says.

What’s more, he’s acted as sort of a recruiter for ANWA, telling other families and recent Afghan immigrants how much the group has assisted him. Mir has even jumped in to help himself.

“Mir has given up hours of his day to drive around in a rental truck, picking up items, moving stuff, and dropping off [items] with different families,” Penn says.

Like Mir, she says, every family she has helped has paid it forward to the next one that needs help adjusting to a new life here in Northern Virginia. When asked what advice he would give to recent immigrants or refugees, Mir says that’s to give back the same kindness one receives.

“I’m happy to help. Now is the time to show others the same,” he says. “You have to give back.”

This article was supported by and first sent to members of the ARLnow Press Club

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