US families step up to welcome Afghan refugees in their homes

Written by on September 16, 2021

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(NEW YORK) — Kenneth and Adi Martinez have an extra bedroom in the home they share outside of Seattle with their 6-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

So when the Martinezes watched the coverage of tens of thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan last month as the Taliban took over, they stepped up to help.

The Martinezes opened their extra bedroom to a family of four who left Afghanistan with all of their belongings packed in a few bags. The mother is pregnant with her third child.

“They [told us] they were in the airplane when one of their friends contacted them and said the Taliban came,” said Adi Martinez. “I’m pretty sure their flight was one of the last to leave before the chaos began.”

For the past month, the two families from different parts of the world have assimilated, living and cooking together and watching their young children play together even as they speak different languages. The Martinezes have helped the family adjust to life in Seattle, including buying them coats and shoes to adjust to the cold.

“Even though we may think we don’t have a lot, we have an extra bedroom, we have the means and the resources and the ability to help,” said Kenneth Martinez. “We are happy that we can help.”

The Biden administration said as many as 95,000 refugees are expected to resettle in the United States from Afghanistan over the next year. U.S. military and diplomatic personnel withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, ending America’s 20 years of war in the country.

To be able to respond to the demand, the nine national U.S. refugee resettlement agencies that lead the process are having to work with community partners to find housing, according to Kristen Aster, director of client and community engagement with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the nine agencies.

In some cases, people like the Martinez family are opening their homes for free to Afghan refugees. In other cases, local companies and individuals are offering places to rent.

“Given the large numbers of folks who are arriving right now, we are working with community members and private resources to have interim solutions,” said Aster. “That’s definitely been a great and critical lifeline as we work with these families to find them more permanent housing.”

“Then we work with the families to help them find jobs, to enroll their kids in school, and access medical care, to learn English, to get connected with volunteers and others in the community to help them navigate life in the United States,” she said. “All of that is with the goal of helping families to be self-sufficient and integrated as soon as possible.”

The Martinezes said their Christian faith as well as their own experience motivated them to help. The couple immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2011 when Kenneth Martinez was offered a job with Microsoft.

“We know exactly what it feels like to come to a brand new country with no family or anything,” he said. “We know it can be difficult, and in the case [of Afghan refugees], it’s very difficult.”

For Fawn Johnson, a real estate developer in nearby Seattle, the realization she could help Afghan families in need came as she was watching news coverage of them fleeing their home country on U.S. military aircraft.

“One of [our] homes became vacant in July and as we saw more and more about what was going on in Afghanistan, we decided we wanted to use it to help refugees,” she said. “This was one thing we could actually put our hands-on and personally do something about.”

Johnson is now donating her property to be used as a temporary landing spot for refugees until they are able to move to more permanent housing.

When Johnson and her son and daughter, who work in the family business, asked for help from family and friends, a team of more than 100 volunteers stepped up to renovate the house in a matter of weeks and stock it with food, clothing, household supplies and toys.

A family of three, including an 18-month-old boy, arrived at the home on Aug. 23, and Johnson and other volunteers were there to greet them.

“We helped them carry in their luggage and they came in with everything they had,” she said. “It really hit us the few things that they brought with them and how we could carry of all that in just a trip or two.”

Describing the toddler’s reaction to his new home in the U.S., Johnson recalled, “The first thing he did when he came in was go right to where the toys are and he saw a ball. His father said that he loves balls and that he had one in Kabul that he had to leave behind.”

Johnson has stayed in touch with the family as they have settled into their home, including taking them to see the ocean for the first time and procuring bread from a local Afghan bakery so they would feel more at home.

She is now also working to help find jobs for the Afghan refugees resettling in the Seattle area.

“The husband in the house now has a degree in computer science,” said Johnson. “As he looks for jobs here, it’s difficult to make that transition, so we’re really hoping some of the big tech companies can step up and help people like him who have the education to work with them to get them employed.”

“The people that we are seeing are those who worked with U.S. military, who are well-educated and who are going to do a great deal to add to this country,” she said. “They will really be clearly adding to the culture and the economy and just the tapestry of the United States.”

Both Johnson and the Martinez family are volunteering their homes through World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization whose Seattle office is working to resettle more than 100 Afghan refugees who have arrived in the past month.

“We have a pretty robust Afghan community in the Seattle area and most folks want to go where they have a tie, either a family member or friend,” Chitra Hanstad, executive director of World Relief Seattle, said of why the area is experiencing such an uptick. “I think it also has to do with the welcoming nature of Washington state. It makes it a great place for people to land, and there are a lot of job opportunities.”

The Afghan refugees arriving in the Seattle area typically come with just a suitcase or two and just over $1,000 in hand — through a U.S. government stipend — to start their new lives, according to Hanstad.

From there, World Relief steps in to help provide housing and supplies to start their lives in the U.S., including gift cards to local stores so the families can pick out their own belongings. The organization also provides long-term support like job placement, child care, social activities and language classes.

“We read research that you can learn language faster if you’re doing something that you’re good at or want to do, so we started an Afghan women’s sewing class and teach English through sewing,” said Hanstad, adding that the class also helps with the isolation refugees often feel. “We do it in a cohort model so these women get to know another group of women really well through those weeks of sewing.”

Hanstad said there has been a “huge uptick” recently of donations for Afghan refugees, but she worries about the months and years ahead as the refugees continue to build their lives in the U.S.

“I’ve been doing this work for years and I’ve seen that crises are short-lived. People move on to the next thing,” she said. “Really what we need desperately is funding so we can be flexible and agile.”

The huge need for help for Afghan refugees has prompted companies in the private sector to step up and help too.

Airbnb.org, for example, is providing temporary housing to 20,000 Afghan refugees worldwide, working with the International Rescue Committee to place refugees in housing available for rent.

Cameron Steele, a 30-year-old in Arlington, Virginia, found out in late August that his Airbnb property in Sacramento, California, would be rented via Airbnb.org and the International Rescue Committee to house a refugee family.

As he told his friends about the booking, an idea grew of how they could help the incoming Afghan family.

“One of my friends said, ‘If the family needs anything, let me know, I’m happy to support,'” said Steele. “That sparked an idea and I posted on Facebook and Instagram that I’d be hosting a family and if anyone wanted to [support] I’d make sure 100% was given to the family.”

Donations started pouring in, mostly in small amounts like $5 and $10, according to Steele.

Steele’s sister, Ashley Frost, who lives in Sacramento and helps him manage the Airbnb property, used the support to stock the house with supplies and leave the family a gift card so they could shop on their own.

“She spent hours collecting all the stuff for the family with the money that was given,” Steele said of Frost. “She went with her two daughters, my nieces, so it was neat to see her involving them in the process.”

When the first Afghan family moved on to more permanent housing and a second family moved in this week, Steele was also able to give them gift cards and supplies.

“It’s so difficult to leave everything you know, even if you know the opportunity is better for your kids and your family,” said Steele, who saw it firsthand through his girlfriend and her family, who are Armenian and immigrated to the U.S. “I know it’s not easy at all so it’s cool to just play a little role in adding some humanness to this whole experience and really showing them what we’re about.”

Steele said that in addition to helping them start their lives, he hopes the act of leaving donations for the Afghan families helps make them feel more at home in America.

“Little things like this hopefully make you feel like you made the right decision and you’re in the right place and it gives you hope, and that’s what we all need,” he said. “[Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S.] is a challenging thing for a lot of people — both for people moving here and for people feeling like people are coming into their communities — but it’s part of the American dream and the foundation of who we are as a country, as a people.”

“For this country specifically, we were all immigrants once,” said Steele.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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