When Rafi and his family left Afghanistan in 2014, they feared both for their lives and the unknown ahead.
Like other Afghans who worked alongside U.S. forces, the former interpreter and investigator was forced to leave behind his parents, siblings and hometown, Kabul. When he arrived in Colorado on a special immigrant visa, he had no real guide to help him navigate the American system, from signing up for a phone and internet plan to getting a driver’s license.
It was like starting all over, Rafi said, without the comfort of home, family and shared language.
Now, nearly seven years later, Rafi is among the Coloradans stepping up to help the nearly 2,000 Afghan refugees who are expected to arrive in Colorado by the end of this month. He’s one of many Afghan refugees who decided to leave another job to work full-time at a state transitional housing center in metro Denver, where nearly 450 refugees currently await permanent homes.
The Colorado Sun has agreed to identify Rafi only by his middle name because of ongoing safety concerns for his relatives in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government’s collapse forced many people to flee immediately, a traumatic and chaotic scramble that has many refugees still reeling. While he was able to leave with his wife and children, Rafi noted some refugees he met at the transitional center were forced to leave their spouse and kids behind.
“Even though they’re here, they’re still living in the dilemma of ‘what’s going to happen next?’” Rafi said. “‘Are we going to be here forever? Are we going to be able to go back to our kids?’ These are all the questions that people ask.”
In addition to guiding people through some of the basics of adjusting to life in the United States — getting documentation and a cellphone, learning English and obtaining housing — Rafi is trying to show other refugees a path through the uncertainty.
“I tell them as an example, I started from zero and now I’m in a better position,” Rafi said.
A big humanitarian effort is underway
Afghans and other refugees have been coming to Colorado for decades, with more recent refugees arriving from countries like Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Ukraine. Last year, the state Refugee Services Program and other partners served 5,000 refugees, including recent arrivals. The most recent influx of Afghan refugees are being resettled as part of Operation Allies Welcome, a national effort to protect Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last fall.
The effort is challenging state agencies and refugee aid groups, which have had to recruit new staff who speak Dari and Pashto and step up their operations quickly. In the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, Colorado resettled about 450 people each of those years. By comparison, nearly four times that number have arrived in Colorado since September, with new families arriving at Denver International Airport daily and weekly.
Many people are being temporarily housed at the state’s transitional housing site, some of whom will stay for weeks, while refugee services agencies work to secure documentation and find families a more permanent place to live. The location is not being disclosed because many refugees are fleeing threats of violence in their home country.
Medical services, traditional meals and prayer services are available to help the site’s residents feel at home, said Meg Sagaria-Barritt of the Colorado Office of Refugee Services Program, which provides services and language and cultural orientation classes to help refugees through the transition.
There has been no shortage of churches, community groups and individuals looking to volunteer or donate, said Jaime Blanchard, director of refugee and asylee programs for Lutheran Family Services, which will help resettle 550 Afghan refugees. That’s on top of their work helping refugees from other countries, Blanchard said, noting that the nonprofit is preparing to welcome two families from Ukraine and Sudan this month.
Resettlement agencies like Lutheran Family Services, International Rescue Committee and Project Worthmore receive funding from the federal government for each individual they help. Many nonprofits cut staff after the Trump administration brought the number of refugee admissions to the U.S to record lows, and then began hiring under the Biden administration and as the conflict in Afghanistan escalated.
Lutheran Family Services has career coaches working with refugees, many of whom were doctors and professionals in Afghanistan, to find new jobs or a path to their profession in the United States. The nonprofit has also received tens of thousands of dollars in donations to help cover rent and other costs for families as they transition and settle in. The challenge has been finding available rentals in an already tight housing market, Blanchard said, noting that the agency has two full-time workers dedicated to locating housing units.
“There’s not a lot out there right now,” Blanchard said.
Beyond immediate needs like food, shelter and jobs, many groups are also thinking about the long-term mental health needs of Afghan refugees who were forced to flee, lost loved ones in the conflict and are distraught about the safety of their family back home.
“A lot of refugees will live for years in a neighboring country, but (Afghan refugees) had no anticipation of this in mid-August,” Sagaria-Barritt said. “And then they were in another country two or three weeks later.”
Afghan American communities stepping up
On a Saturday morning after a snowstorm, volunteers and members of Masjid Ikhlas, the Metropolitan Denver North Islamic Center in Northglenn, were busy preparing to distribute food, clothing, appliances, school supplies and household goods to a growing community of Afghan refugees. The mosque has rooms overflowing with donations that are distributed about as quickly as they come in. County employees set up tables in a prayer area to help families sign up for federal food assistance.
Families stopped by throughout the afternoon to pick up supplies and culturally appropriate food donations, including freshly butchered halal meat, lentils, spices and flour to make Afghan bread.
Dawud Marquez, a Muslim American man who runs the mosque’s food distribution efforts, can make nearly 100 food deliveries a week across the Denver metro to refugee families with limited access to transportation. The mosque also feeds more than 20 non-Muslim families in the community.
Marquez said the generosity and hospitality of refugees, in turn, has his four kids often clamoring to come along on the deliveries.
“We got there around 6:40 p.m. with their food, and we didn’t leave until midnight because they kidnapped us and made us steak for dinner,” Marquez said about one Afghan family he delivered food to.
The Islamic Center has become an important resource for many refugee families, said Mina Hashem, a 27-year-old Afghan American from Thornton who is helping to organize the community.
Many families coming to the mosque have experienced delays in receiving benefits, or aren’t familiar with the canned goods and American foods they received from local food banks. Some families said they haven’t eaten in days, she said. The group has also received donations of laptops, appliances and other electronics that are a big help to families, especially so they can focus their limited dollars on bigger purchases, like buying a car.
Refugee families also struggle with the social and language isolation of moving to a new country, said Hashem, adding that some have been unable to meet their caseworkers in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They get really excited to see a community that they can rely on and connect with, and it’s been a great way to meet other families that are in similar situations,” Hashem said.
Hashem is also part of a nonprofit, Muslim Youth for Positive Impact, that has been spearheading the mosque’s efforts. In addition to coordinating donations, the group has organized a program to pair new refugee families with more established Afghan American families.
The resettlement effort has also forged a new sense of community for first- and second-generation Afghan Americans, including many who came to the United States as refugees decades ago.
It’s been overwhelming at times to hear the stories, said Hashem, recalling a woman whose two young sons were killed as they tried to make their way to the airport in Kabul. Working with newly arrived refugees has also sparked conversations with her mother, who left a career at a bank to work on state efforts to assist Afghan refugees.
“I could have been one of them myself, if my parents had not gotten the opportunity to come here,” Hashem said. “It started bringing up a lot of memories of when she first came here and didn’t have anyone.”
Even for Afghan Americans born in the United States, watching the Taliban take control of Afghanistan has been gutting, said Jessica Saifee, a third-year medical student who is volunteering at a Denver Health clinic that provides medical screening and vaccinations for newly arrived refugees.
Saifee’s parents also came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1980s. Although Saifee has never been to Afghanistan, she had hoped to work there during her fourth year of medical school, and get a chance to experience a culture and country that has always felt one step removed from her life. Now, she’s not sure if that visit will ever happen.
“Even for me, it’s been so hard because I want to step foot in my own motherland, my father’s country,” Saifee said.
But here in Denver, she has a new opportunity. She spends every week working directly with Afghans, a chance to connect, learn and be a part of a new community.
“Every single week has been so important to me, because many children of the diaspora only get to experience fragments of their culture,” she said.
It’s that community that will help newer Afghan refugees find their footing, said Rafi, who decided to settle in Colorado because the climate reminds him of home.
“They might not be proficient in the language, but they are engineers, doctors, pilots — people from different walks of life who happen to be here,” Rafi said. “We need their power, their human power … in our communities. It’s just a matter of time and tolerance.”