By Mona Dougani, Queens University News Service
Though housing options for new Afghan refugees arriving in Charlotte are few and far between, passionate volunteers, former military personnel, interpreters, and former refugees are already gearing up to support the transition to life in a new city.
In the coming months, North Carolina is expecting to house around 1,200 Afghan refugees across the state, with Charlotte accepting roughly 300 men, women, and children, resettling families with help from local agencies including Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency and Catholic Charities. About 130 had arrived by Nov. 11. A lack of affordable housing means most are temporarily in hotels, Airbnb units, or other solutions.
But people supporting agencies and nonprofit organizations are building on years of experience with Afghanistan to prepare for this wave of refugees.
The Medical Interpreter
Nasreen Naushad, a medical interpreter who was among the first Afghan refugee families to move to Charlotte in the ‘80s, does her best to help new arrivals.
Both Muslim and non-Muslim communities help refugees with basic domestic chores, like obtaining a driver permits, buying cars, and finding jobs, she said.
“My friends volunteered their time to go and teach some of the women English in their own apartment, because a lot of them, they have little kids and they cannot go to an English class,” Naushad said. “If they’re pregnant, and having a baby, I go with them to the hospital to have the baby.”
Naushad is temporarily working with the Department of Defense at a base in New Jersey, where she translates for patients in an OB-GYN clinic and wherever else her skills are needed, helping resettle roughly 14,000 refugees in New Jersey.
Though she has been away from Charlotte for a couple of months, she still keeps in contact with new evacuees coming to the city, organizes resources for them, and recruits new volunteers.
“One of the refugee families, she saw how I helped the people, so now she knows how to do it,” she said. “She goes to the apartment, and she sees what they need, then she tells me, then I send the list to this group of people, and they help them.”
The Bank Employee Who Started a Nonprofit in a Garage
At a holiday get-together with friends in 2017, Amarra Ghani organized resources to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. Her small acts of service then moved into a garage, and later evolved into a nonprofit organization called Welcome Home Charlotte, dedicated to serving new evacuees readjusting to a new life.
The organization offers an English language program where volunteers can sign up to tutor, a food bank for donations, and an appointment program where volunteers take families to medical and dental appointments.
In addition to these three core programs, Ghani said that connecting families to jobs is another goal, which is mainly done through word-of-mouth.
“As soon as we are aware of a family, that’s kind of when we step in,” Ghani said. “We do the furniture, do all those food runs, and then go on to sustainability, like job placement…. The community has been really great about offering those positions and offering those jobs to our refugee families.”
Though Ghani works full-time as a product manager at Bank of America, she said Welcome Home Charlotte is her “24/7” job.
The Former Soldier
Sean Kilbane, a former member of the Army Reserve deployed in Afghanistan, halted his normal daily life in mid-September to join the Interpreting Freedom Foundation to help Afghan allies who were fleeing to Charlotte.
“When everything happened here with regards to the withdrawal, I just felt as if I had no other choice but to involve myself,” Kilbane said. “I haven’t felt as I’ve been able to be in a position to go back to my normal day-to-day life because if nobody else is going to fix it, I just feel very compelled to be the person that has to try to be the one fixing it.”
The Interpreting Freedom Foundation has five core programs, he said, including advocacy, helping to connect refugees with housing in the area, jobs and skills training, basic life support such as connecting families with food, toiletries, and other essentials and a community relations program fostering Afghan-to-Afghan family support.
Another program the organization provides is Operation Connect Vet, where the nonprofit takes former interpreters who have arrived to the United States, connecting them back to military personnel that they worked with overseas.
A New Refugee
Hamid, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S military, whose surname is not being used for safety reasons, arrived in Charlotte on Nov. 9 because of his connection working alongside Kilbane in Afghanistan.
In an interview conducted in English and Farsi, Hamid said he worked with the military for about 1.5 years, and faced extensive danger during the withdrawal.
“One really big problem for us after our work ended is that it was really hard to live in Afghanistan,” he said.
Hamid was able to receive access to different services once he set foot in Charlotte.
“I really appreciate them,” Hamid said. “They came yesterday to the airport and they had a really good welcome and then they brought us to our new home today and spent the whole day with me, and took me everywhere so I’m really happy for that,” Hamid said.
He and his family live in an Airbnb unit, while more permanent housing is being located.
Though Hamid has found support, Kilbane argues that more can be done in Charlotte to help refugees. He pointed to partnerships in Virginia that identify and fill gaps in services and resources quickly.
“What we’ve seen in Northern Virginia that far exceeds what we provide here is a public/private partnership,” Kilbane said. “Many of these large, multinational, high-cap, high-value companies in Virginia have partnered with not just the refugee agencies, but also religious-based agencies, as well as other agencies.”
Mona Dougani is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the news service in support of local community news.