A few weekends ago, I bonded in camp chairs with some new Afghan friends at a U.S. military base. With my military ID in my back pocket, my mission was simple – to get on base and connect with my husband’s linguist, whose cell phone stopped working when he left Qatar. Over a week later, all we knew was his location and that he had chicken pox. I was worried, so I decided to go find him.
My soft spot for Henry, as we’ll call him to protect his identity, developed a few years ago, while my husband Adam was deployed in Afghanistan at the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC). One day I noticed a fat-burning, muscle-building protein powder in our Amazon orders, and I was puzzled. My husband is already a towering, beefy guy who, like every good soldier, worked out daily while deployed. Desperate for humor, I imagined him hulking out in the weight room, thrash metal raging, looking in the mirror and thinking, “Need more fat burn, more muscle build.” So I naturally gave him a hard time about the powder. He played along and chuckled, but told me that it was actually his translator Henry’s request. “Likely story,” I thought. But then I imagined Henry — the brainy, rule of law interpreter who helped prosecute the Taliban with ANASOC. And his request seemed downright endearing. Yes, of course Henry needed that hulk powder.
Once Adam returned, our friendship with Henry continued. We helped him with his arduous Special Immigrant Visa application process, and he received initial approval last July, but was awaiting an embassy interview. Then less than a month later, on the morning of August 15, we woke up to his email telling us that the Taliban had taken over his neighborhood. The morning news was reporting that the embassy was being evacuated; there would be no one left to conduct interviews. All hope was lost.
“Don’t give up hope,” Adam wrote back. “If you’re going to be a Great American, you have to work on being eternally optimistic, even against all odds.” While in Afghanistan, ANASOC often used the game of football as an analogy for strategic planning. If the first down doesn’t go the way you want it to, you adjust your plan for the second down.
So Henry adjusted. On day three of his third attempt to make it through the Kabul airport gates, we received a 4 am call from a State Department saint named Cameron. He told us Henry was safe inside the gates and that he would be manifested on a flight soon. Along the way, Henry had been beaten by the Taliban, had crawled through feces and urine, had nearly suffocated in the masses, but he pushed through to the end zone and got his seat on a flight here. He arrived in our country with nothing but a backpack and the clothes on his back.
Ten days later, I found Henry among the thousands of Afghans on a U.S. base in a remote chicken pox quarantine area, thanks to the good soldiers who guided me to him. Henry realized early on that there’s strength in numbers, and he had picked up three friends along the way, all 20-something, single peers with U.S. employment and naturalization ties. It was late when I arrived, so I delivered a suitcase of clothing and supplies, grabbed their cell phones, gave them one of mine so that we could connect, and told them I’d be back the next day with functional phones and more supplies.
Through my husband’s experience, I learned that tea and hospitality are everything to Afghans, so I brought Henry and his friends, the Fabulous Four as I call them, an electric kettle, tea supplies, and camp chairs the next day. They served me as their guest from their quarantine tent. We drank tea, we laughed, and we cried together. They told me about their long and hellish journey, and how Henry used humor to boost morale with various regional accent impersonations, which look to me like the Afghan equivalent of Gomer Pyle. They showed me pictures of their families back in Kabul and shared their fears for those left behind.
Each member of the Fab Four – a medical student, a gymnast, a fashion designer, and a legal scholar – thrived and succeeded in a society free of the Taliban, and that was due in no small part to our labor in Afghanistan. Now that they have arrived in our country, I have no doubt that all four will thrive here, too, and become Great Americans. The two women in the Fab Four are ambitious and ready to roll, and Henry is headed to law school, so we brainstormed on their dreams and plans here in the States. I made sure they all knew that we are their American family, and assured them that the meals at my house far exceed the quality of the boxed Army chow they were served at the base quarantine quarters.
The Afghans who arrive on U.S. bases for medical and immigration processing do not have soft landings. When I first arrived in the chicken pox and covid quarantine areas, none of the children there had toys to play with, and the families had meager food delivery and inadequate clothing and supplies. Unlike the healthy Afghans who are free to shop and eat on base, those in quarantine are bound to their bunked tents. That said, the freedom to shop at the base commissary also requires money, and refugee allowances are limited. The resettlement effort is inarguably in a complete state of overwhelm, but even in the 48 hours that I was on base, I saw the greater effort ramp up, staff up, and improve.
Unlike many of the talking heads pointing fingers in DC, I’m not here to complain about our Afghan withdrawal and resettlement process. Instead, I write to urge the American people to focus on what we’re getting right and to consider picking up the baton for a spell.
That weekend I picked up the baton and ran beside many others on base. We made supply and toy runs for the quarantined families who needed them most. Throughout the weekend I slid coloring books and fresh fruit into the tent of Henry’s neighbors, a family of seven. “I love you!” the kids would shout as they came running towards their treasures. I assured them that I love them, too.
There are countless Afghan helpers across the nation and around the world right now. Let’s focus on them. Legions of soldiers suddenly deployed for the unexpected purpose of refugee crisis assistance. Disaster relief workers bringing in loads of basic need supplies. Health care workers caring for the ill, advocating for their diets, and immunizing new arrivals. Afghan interpreters, refugees themselves, stepping back into their translator roles to help the health care teams communicate with patients. Government staffers arriving by the dozens to these bases, often in remote locations, to help process immigration and resettlement paperwork.
I passed the baton on that base, but I’ll pick one back up daily now that I’m home. My husband and I will help Henry apply to law school and will help another member of the Fab Four with resettlement as she begins her American life. We will continue our legal effort to get 22 of their remaining vulnerable family members, all with U.S. ties, out of Kabul.
So many friends and family members have asked, “What can I do?” and my answer is simple. Find an Afghan who recently arrived and have a cup of tea with them. Ask them their story and tell them yours. They will all add to the melting pot that is our glorious, diverse country. If you can’t find an Afghan, a simple online search can connect you with the various resettlement efforts in cities throughout the U.S.
As a nation, we may feel grim about the disappointing result of our 20-year investment in Afghanistan. But the fruits of our labor have just arrived. Find them, and welcome them.
AILA has made its featured issue page publicly available with resources for anyone seeking additional information about how to help Afghan clients: https://www.aila.org/advo-media/issues/all/resources-assisting-afghan-clients.