The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Despite everything, Americans are stepping up to help Afghan refugees

People drop off donations for Afghan refugees at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus on August 21. (Meagan Flynn/The Washington Post)
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Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For months after the painful U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I tried to find some substantive way to aid Afghan refugee families in the United States — particularly in Northern Virginia, where I live. A couple of weeks ago, a friend introduced me to the Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center in McLean. IROC, in turn, introduced me to a newly arrived family of seven — siblings and in-laws, aged 14 to 30, the proud owners of five chairs and three beds. Almost no English. An apartment rented by a family acquaintance, they told me, but there was no lease in evidence. No phones, no computers, no blankets, no coats, no boots, no sneakers, and no pots, pans, or food (friends were bringing them meals).

“My” family is in no way unique: The children’s father stayed in Afghanistan to look after his ailing father. Their mother stayed with him. They spent a few months on a military base and left in search of a forever home. They have three months’ rent from the federal government, possibly an additional stipend, and need to get into schools and find jobs. They have a small group of friends, mostly an extended circle of Afghans who have been here a little longer.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of Americans helping such refugees — inviting them in, feeding them, helping them orient, driving them, doing what they can. Here’s my story: After spending a bunch of cash online, I realized this family was going to need more help. I’m not much of a neighborhood association type, but I used our local email group to reach out to my wider community. I explained the situation and the family‘s needs, and I asked people to pitch in what they could.

It took only moments, literally. Emails flooded in. Sheets, blankets, pots, pans, mirrors, rice, a bike, mattresses, couches, clothes, shoes — you name it, the offers piled into my inbox. My front door was overflowing with generous drop-offs, new and sometimes lightly used. A few neighbors went out and shopped, texting from Walmart to ask about sizes. Others ordered online and sent things to my home addressed to “Afghan Family.” My husband and kids joined me in making deliveries.

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Still, many Afghan refugees, like those from other countries, are trapped in a series of Catch-22s. A lot of free English lessons are online, but most newcomers have no computers. The library has some laptops one can borrow, but without a lease or a gas bill, you can’t get a library card. They don’t have phones, instrumental if you’re trying to network, applying for jobs, looking for a ride to class, trying to do more than sit. For those needs, I turned to my American Enterprise Institute colleagues and alums, and again, there they were, overflowing with generosity. The family’s wish list was fulfilled, and more. I even have extra things I am able to share with other families in need.

That’s not all. My Afghan family lives in Prince William County, not my home area. Three kids need to go to school, and the older ones need lessons in English as a second language. One person after another at the county’s Global Welcome Center walked me through managing a lack of paperwork — no passports, no birth certificates, no vaccination history, no proof of residence. Once we sorted that, others sat patiently with me on the phone setting up parent accounts for the brother responsible for the younger siblings. They processed the applications in less than 24 hours. They called me to make an appointment for school interviews days later. They sent me ESL materials. Every person was pleasant, kind, incredibly patient, warm.

It’s been a rough year, not just for refugees, but for so many Americans. We’re angry, we’re tired. We’re sick of being sick; of arguing about masks, politics, vaccines; of worrying about the future, the present and our kids. We are, as the papers keep telling us, more divided than ever before. But guess what? Americans are wonderful, and it’s not just my neighbors and colleagues. They’re generous, they’re kind, they’re selfless. Are we, here near the nation’s capital, better off than many? Yep. But I know from the relief agencies I’m talking to that it’s not wealth that’s a factor in so much generosity. It’s character.

My small group of Afghans is only one family. Ours is only one small gesture. But wow, people are just so very good. It warms your heart.