By John Zhu
They fled their home in Afghanistan on an hour’s notice last August in the chaotic days right after Kabul fell to the Taliban. They took with them their six kids, a couple backpacks, and nothing else—not their valuables, not their family heirlooms, not even their passports.
Since then, this Afghan family of eight has led a transitory existence. Seven of them ended up in one U.S. resettlement camp, while their eldest son was at another. They reunited in a hotel in Raleigh, stayed there for a couple months, and then moved into a temporary house in Durham in October, all while undertaking the daunting task of rebuilding their lives in a new country.
For the last couple months, their journey has been made easier by a group of Duke political science graduate students, who have volunteered significant time to provide important day-to-day support and community connections for the family.
“We are talking about people who came here on hope, who put their faith in the American people—that they were going to leap and we were going to catch them,” said McKinsey Harb, an M.A. student who organized the volunteer group. “They really have a lot of positive spirit, and I want to make sure we do them justice and catch them.”
Harb, an active-duty U.S. Army strategist, was part of a network of veterans who mobilized online to help evacuate Afghans from Kabul as the Taliban closed in. After those efforts wrapped up, she wanted to continue helping evacuees, so she got involved with Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC), one of the organizations helping Afghan families settle in the U.S.
LSC needed the help. Before 2021, an average of 12,000 Afghans immigrated to the U.S. each year. In the last six months, more than 75,000 have evacuated to America. About 1,500 of those evacuees are expected to settle in the Triangle area by mid-February, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
LSC asked Harb if she could form a Circle of Welcome—a group to help refugees integrate into their new communities. Harb put out a call to the graduate students in her department and found enough volunteers to form a circle within two days.
The volunteer group consists of political science graduate students Harb, Gabriella Levy, Emily Myers, Patrick Ramjug, Lucy Right, and Stephanie Wright. Sam Phillips, who is not affiliated with Duke, is also part of the group.
The students met the Afghan family in late December. In the six weeks since then, they have spent more than 110 hours with the family, with at least one volunteer visiting their home almost every day. The students have been providing transportation, helping the family open bank accounts, offering English lessons and homework help, and assisting with other logistics of starting a new life.
“This Circle of Welcome is such an excellent setup,” said Myers, who has been visiting the family about twice a week to help with transportation and homework. “Not only do you form personal connections with this family and can help with that social aspect, but also there is a group of us, so we can pick up as needed.”
The students have also been raising money for the family. For now, aid from the resettlement agency and donations help cover housing, utilities, and basic necessities, but the family is expected to become financially self-sufficient in a couple months. The father is working part-time, but the lack of a car limits the family’s employment options.
The graduate students have raised more than $8,000 to date through an online campaign. They are also hoping to find a used car so that money can instead go toward the many other needs that might crop up for a family with six kids (ages 2 through 16).
“All this money that we are raising could go for one used car or a whole bunch of other stuff, so a car is a really pressing need that would help address a lot of other pressing needs for the family,” Levy said.
Despite their precarious situation, the family members have been incredibly positive and hopeful, the students said. The father cracks jokes with them despite the language barrier. Volunteer visits often end with an insistent invitation to stay for dinner. The first time Ramjug visited the family, their house was mostly empty, and yet they scrambled to make him tea.
“I feel like every time I see them, it’s the highlight of my week,” Ramjug said. “I always leave with an ear-to-ear grin.”
How to Help
The graduate student volunteers provided the following information for anyone interested in helping refugees.
To Support This Afghan Family
- Give to the fundraising campaign. The primary focus is to help the family get a car to improve their livelihood and opportunities.
- The Circle of Welcome is also looking for more secure job opportunities for the parents and longer-term housing.
- The group needs volunteers who can offer transportation to appointments, arrange for services, help with English and homework, and provide long-term social support in the community. The group is also looking for translating help (the family speaks Dari) and ESL resources. Volunteers can commit as much or as little time as they are able. To volunteer, contact McKinsey Harb (McKinsey.firstname.lastname@example.org).
To Support Other Refugees
- There are many refugee families who do not have a Circle of Welcome and are only receiving limited assistance from LSC. Anyone interested in forming their own circle through LSC can contact Christopher McLaren (email@example.com), the organization’s outreach coordinator. There is also a sign-up form for nation-wide volunteering.
- Those interested in donating food or grocery gift cards to refugees in the Triangle area can also contact McLaren. All of the families are in need of dry goods and halal meats.