Community Facebook group helps Afghan refugees start new lives in America | ARLnow

When the Taliban took control of his native Afghanistan in August, Mir knew he and his family had to leave.

He was convinced they would be a target because he was a contractor helping the UK, US and NATO with communications and information technology.

“If I stayed in the country, the [Taliban] probably would have killed me,” he tells ARLnow (we withhold his last name for privacy reasons).

After securing a visa, the family embarked on a harrowing journey that took them from the place they’ve called home all their lives to Northern Virginia. It was the first time Mir had left Afghanistan.

While Mir, his wife and nine-month-old baby are now safe in America, they arrived here with nothing.

“I didn’t even have a dollar to buy a diaper for my son,” Mir said, speaking via Zoom from his apartment in Alexandria.

That’s when Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA) got involved, a Facebook group started by military veteran Ryan Elizabeth Alvis to help Afghans resettle in the area.

“When Afghan families arrive, they [come] with nothing but the clothes on your back,” says Alvis, who lives in the Bluemont neighborhood. “We want to welcome these families as they deserve in our community. And that requires the involvement of the average citizen.

This was all a grassroots effort. After seeing the footage on TV and learning from her own experience serving in Afghanistan as a Marine in the early 2010s, Alvis knew she had to help.

She reached out to other nonprofit groups that were organizing efforts. While waiting for an answer, Alvis created the Facebook group. Shortly after, she received a tip about a newly arrived family in Reston looking for help and supplies. So she organized an effort across the group to get the family what they needed.

Quickly, the word spread.

“I received a phone call from another Afghan family who had been given my phone number,” she said. “And that’s how it grew…with cold calling.”

Since the beginning of October, approximately 500 ANWA members have helped 58 families resettle in Northern Virginia in a variety of ways, from providing furniture to contributing money for food to setting up the Wireless.

In total, more than 4,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in Virginia over the past year, according to InsideNoVa.

When a new request comes in from a family, Alvis appoints “team leaders” to help that family. In turn, these team leaders post to the group asking for specific things the family needs. Alvis expects the band to continue to be active until at least April.

So far, the group has raised around $20,000 for food and household items and is raising more through GoFundMe.

It’s not just dollars, however, that members of the Arlington community contribute. It’s their time and effort.

Volunteers Karen Penn and Christy McIntyre are the “team leaders” for Mir and her family. They make requests on behalf of the family in the Facebook group for household items, arrange deliveries, and generally help with whatever is needed.

This includes helping navigate the Metrobus system, which was naturally intimidating for Mir.

Penn and McIntyre note how gratifying, humbling, and inspiring it is to spend time with recent American arrivals.

“[Mir and his family] really start again. It’s amazing how resilient they are,” says Penn, who lives in the Leeway-Overlee neighborhood.

McIntyre, who lives in Arlington Forest, says the experience was eye-opening, realizing that something that may seem tiny can make a huge difference to someone.

“If everyone does something small, if a lot of people come together, we can do amazing things,” she says. “The Arlington community has stepped up big, really big. And they continue to do so for other families. I am so proud of our community.

Mir knows there are still many challenges ahead, even though he is safe in Alexandria.

He is currently looking for a job in the IT industry, having applied to almost 100 so far. He also plans to go back to school, as the degrees he earned in Afghanistan sometimes can’t translate to America.

Mir also worries about the fate of his family still in Afghanistan, such as his mother, brother and sister-in-law. He recently got to see their faces when he attended his brother’s wedding virtually.

“I couldn’t talk for 10 minutes,” he said how moving it was to see them.

But being in America, he says, has allowed him to dream of a future for his young son that includes opportunity, education and freedom. He also envisions a great future for himself.

“I researched Elon Musk. He started from scratch and now he’s going to Mars on a spacecraft,” he says. “I want to be not Elon Musk, but more than Elon Musk.”

Mir explains that all of this is possible because of the help he received from ANWA when he first arrived in Northern Virginia, not only with groceries, internet and furniture, but with something just as precious: love and support.

“I now have four mothers. My original mother and Karen, Ryan and Christy. They helped me like my own mother,” says Mir. “They helped me move to America. They are family.

ANWA is always accepting new members and always needs volunteers. Ask to join the group here.

About Gertrude H. Kerr

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