In March of 2020, my friends Khalil and Najia* said a tearful goodbye to family, bade farewell to home and homeland, and boarded a plane bound for the United States. It may have been the last flight out of Kabul before the pandemic brought a temporary end to international travel. What they now owned they carried in two large suitcases; everything (and everyone) else they left behind.
They had been married for barely over a year. With the assistance of the US government and various charitable organizations, the newlyweds made their way to California where they were welcomed (temporarily) into a two-bedroom apartment already occupied by a cousin, his wife, and two small children. Soon after their arrival, they learned that Najia was pregnant with their first child. So exciting. So terrifying.
This is how a new life begins: no job, very little money, almost no possessions, struggling with a second language and unfamiliar culture, surrounded by people and things you can barely understand. “Settling in” hardly seems possible, but you adapt and adjust and try your best to make do. So Khalil now works night security, and when he gets off at 4 a.m. he spends an additional four or five hours driving for Lyft. He and Najia have moved into their own apartment, and somehow they manage to cover their bills while trying also to go to school to qualify for something better. In December they added baby Camila* (so cute!) to the mix.
The outpouring of support from people from within our church and elsewhere has been overwhelming to them. Donations have poured in—furniture, clothing, appliances, gift cards—so many basic necessities that have helped them get on their feet. Still, the road ahead will not be easy. Given the odds and endless obstacles, you might wonder why anyone would even attempt it.
But then, you more or less know the answer to that question.
In this specific case, Kahlil spent several years working as an interpreter and cultural adviser to the US Army stationed near Jalalabad. His work with the Special Forces put him at the center of many combat missions and compelled him to interact frequently with enemy combatants from ISIS and the Taliban. Perhaps inevitably, he was wounded in battle, taking several rounds in the ankle and thigh. Were it not for impressive work by a US Army surgeon, Khalil could easily have lost his foot. He deals with constant pain to this day, but you will never hear him complain about what he’s lost or given up. Mostly he and Najia remain inexpressibly grateful.
Had he stayed in Afghanistan, Khalil’s life would surely be in jeopardy—now more than ever. The Taliban do not look kindly on those who assisted the Americans during their 20 years in the country—especially those as active and visible as Khalil. Although he was fortunate to get out, he left behind parents and siblings whose own lives are now threatened because of their association with him. It’s impossible to know what will become of them. For now, you can be certain that Khalil and Najia worry and pray and hope for some sort of bureaucratic miracle that will enable their loved ones to escape to someplace safer. Needless to say, these days they don’t sleep much.
Of course, there are thousands more in Afghanistan just like Khalil and Najia, full of fear, grasping for hope, trying beyond reason to believe that it might be possible to somehow, somewhere live without the constant fear that at any moment a knock on the door could change everything—irreparably—for the worse. All they want is what you and I want: to raise their kids, to dwell in peace, to laugh and love and live.
“This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”Patrick Kearon
Tens of thousands of displaced, hungry, frightened people will be arriving in the United States in the months ahead, and we must do what we can to welcome them. In the words of Elder Patrick Kearon: “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”
If you can help, please do. You might start here or here. Or simply drop me a line and you can join me and Dana and many others in the effort to turn strangers into neighbors, foreigners into friends, refugees into fellowcitizens as they try to find a place that feels a little bit like home.
*not their real names