‘God Inspires Me’ - How Two Americans Are Helping Resettle Afghan Refugees

Shabibi Sahar (far right) and her family in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, Shabibi Sahar sat next to her husband in their home in Toronto, Canada, and made frantic calls to their family in Kabul. They called day after day and listened to the tearful pleas for help and sobbed together through their helplessness. Sahar barely spoke English, knew only one Afghan family in the community, and did not know where to turn to ask for help to evacuate their family members.

“I can’t describe how difficult it was. I was praying to God all the time to help my family come to me safely,” says Sahar. “It was so hard for me. I was always crying, always afraid.”

Twenty years later, Sahar felt that same sense of fear creep inside her when news broke about the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan in August this year. “I can’t sleep, and when I do, I have constant nightmares.”

What is different this time, she says, is that there is a lot more awareness and support. Across the country, people from all stretch of political divides,  faiths, and walks of life, are coming together to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving at the borders. Afghan-Americans, whose families resettled in the U.S. decades ago as immigrants, or after fleeing the Soviet occupation or Taliban, are also joining the efforts to offer support.

In Minnesota, Sahar’s daughter, Sonia Anunciacion, is leading one of the largest community donation drives to meet the needs of over 13,000 refugees who have arrived in Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy U.S. Army Base.

“There has been an overwhelming outpouring of support,” Anunciacion says, describing how the basement in her home is stacked wall to wall with boxes of donations from people across the country. “There’s a section for clothes, baby formulas, diapers, winter jackets, food, blankets, and so on. They keep coming.”

Anunciacion and her cousins rented a 20-foot U-Haul truck that was paid for by donors, loaded it with the donation boxes, and drove it off to a friend's house in Wisconsin, who then drove it to the Fort McCoy base.

“We partnered with the Northwest Islamic Center who were gracious enough to offer their space for the donation drive,” says Anunciacion. “The Islamic Relief USA is also hosting a fundraiser there soon. We have made Amazon wish lists for people to donate from all over because there is so much need still. People are going to bed hungry; baby diapers and formula are running out fast, and most people only have the clothes on their back they arrived with.”

Anunciacion says that the emotional turmoil of the past weeks hits her at night after her kids go to sleep. She sinks into her living room couch and scrolls anxiously through her social media feed – people arguing whether refugees should be taken in, people offering support, and journalists asking to interview her. The most painful part, she says, is when she speaks on her phone to family members who are still in Kabul.

“It is so difficult to see your people suffering, being treated worse than animals,” says Anunciacion, her voice cracking. “They call us and keep crying, asking us to help evacuate them, but we are helpless. My uncle called us from the park and kept crying – and then he was afraid that maybe the apps are being watched, so he kept saying he’s fine, he’s fine, and cut the call.”

When asked what keeps her going, she starts crying. “My faith,” she says tearfully. “God inspires me.”

“The stories of Prophet Muhammad, where he gives everything he has to those who need it – that generosity, that’s the pivotal point in our religion, that’s just what’s it about, isn’t it?” says Anunciacion. “The prayers keep me going because prayers are powerful. Nothing stays the same, everything passes. One day things will get better for Afghans too.”

700 miles away, in St. Louis, Andy Kim, founder of a custom retail furniture store, is inspired by his Christian faith to think about his responsibility in preparing the community for the arrival of refugees. When he learned that almost 1,000 Afghan families were expected to arrive in his city in the coming weeks, he called his friends.

“We are all a group of small business owners and we got together on a call and asked the same question: How can we help?” says Kim. “By the end of the call, we had about a dozen job opportunities that we were prepared to offer to our incoming Afghan neighbors.”

What inspired him the most, says Kim, were the questions that followed after. One friend asked him: “Should we create designated spaces for them to pray?” Another asked, “I own a brewery, would they be comfortable working in an alcohol-related business?”

“That’s when I knew we were on the right track. Not all of them were driven by faith – some were Christians, some were atheists – but we were asking the questions that were intentional, sensitive,” says Kim. “The Bible talks about stewardship, and I think a part of it is to look at what you have – your friendships, relationships, your privileges, and how to steward them to offer help. I believe it is my responsibility to do so.”

Kim previously worked for an international non-profit called Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Korean refugees escape through a 3,000-mile secret rescue route and empowers them to be advocates and leaders on this issue. When asked what the resettlement process for refugees looks like on the ground once they have successfully escaped, he says, “It’s messy. There is no one universal process.”

“When they get here, try to give them space to figure out what they need to figure out for themselves – there's a lot of dignity in that,” says Kim. “Try not to call them refugees so much, we can’t imagine what they have been through, and their political status shouldn’t define them.”

He adds, “When you remove all the power, the politics, the agenda from the top, what you have on the ground are everyday people who just want to survive – it is important to remember that.” 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.