(Photo by Reza/Getty Images)

Leaving our home

by Robert Mitchell

“… I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
—Matthew 25:35

Massood still tears up when he recounts last year’s harrowing struggle to get his family out of Afghanistan and into the United States.

“It is very emotional to leave your home country,” he says with profound sadness.

Massood worked with U.S. and Afghan military forces in his homeland, which made him a prime target of the murderous Taliban. Last August, as bombings and shootings happened around him, Massood was able to get his wife, Aaina, and their four young boys from Kandahar to the airport in Kabul during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Due to his military status, Massood was able to get his family on a C–130 cargo plane with a few thousand other fleeing refugees, who sat shoulder–to–shoulder. Massood was worried the plane might be shot down, but once the craft left Afghan airspace, his thoughts turned to the fact that he was leaving Afghanistan for good. He hadn’t seen his parents and siblings for months and realized he may never see them again.

The family first reached a sweltering Qatar, where they stayed in a hangar with a few thousand others. “It was very difficult that first day,” Massood told SACONNECTS, pausing several times to compose himself. “The food was limited, and it was not enough. I get emotional remembering everything.”

On the second day, Massood heard an announcement about a plane going to Italy. He got his family aboard another cramped cargo plane.

“I said, ‘Let’s go. The situation is very dire. The kids don’t have food, so let’s just go,’” he recalled telling his wife.

The family arrived safely in Italy but had to undergo extensive interviews and paperwork. Massood didn’t sleep for three days, though his family had food and stayed for about 12 days in apartment–style housing.

Evacuees from Kabul sit inside a military aircraft as they arrive at Tashkent Airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Massood and Aaina, interviewed by SACONNECTS, flew on a similar aircraft during their escape. (Photo by Handout/Bundeswehr via Getty Images)

America awaits

Massood said the family then boarded a normal airliner bound for the United States and a new life. The family’s luggage was lost, and they landed at a large east coast airport with only the clothes on their backs. Massood and Aaina are not exactly sure where the plane landed but described the airport as large and not far from New Jersey.

The family was detained briefly when Massood’s fingerprints were red–flagged from his work with the U.S.–Afghan military. While the background checks were being done, Massood and the family stayed in tents at an overflow facility where they were allowed to rest.

From there, the family was transported to Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst outside Trenton, N.J., where they would spend the next four months living in tents. Massood said everyone there referred to the tent compound simply as “New Jersey Camp.”

While in New Jersey, Massood learned that the Taliban had gone to his home looking for him. They took his cars and other property before beating up his parents and relatives. The Taliban also went to Aaina’s home and tortured her parents, demanding to know where the family fled.

Aaina, who said the experience caused her to weep for many days, recalled another day when she stood in the rain and freezing temperatures to get children’s clothes at the camp.

“I will never forget how I left my life, and here I am standing for a piece of cloth for my children,” Aaina said. “I feel ashamed.”

After four months in New Jersey, the family was relocated to another Northeastern state on Jan. 11, thanks to the Christian relief ministry Samaritan’s Purse and the Bruderhof, a communal Christian group. “Because of the love shown by everyone, we have felt like we are in a family,” Massood said. “We are all a creation of one God.”

Two of the couple’s four children, ages 8, 6, 4, and 7 months, are now in school and the family is settling in nicely. While the adjustment is taking time, Aaina said she knows her husband would have been in grave danger if the family had stayed in Afghanistan.

“I am happy to be here and very thankful, but I’m most thankful that my husband is alive,” she said. “I am thankful for the reception we have received. I want to do the same for others once we are established because I went through it. I also hope we can help our families in some way.

“We understand it will take time to settle down and we pray to our God to take care of our family that’s left there to keep them alive with our faith.”

A new day dawns

Massood, who found a job with a local landscaper, said his wife does the grocery shopping and has seen more of the United States than he has, but he also is thrilled to be safe.

“I am happy, and we like it here, except for the cold temperatures,” he said.

The family has met other Muslims, especially those from Pakistan who speak their language of Pashto. Masood and Aaina agreed their faith helped them survive the long ordeal.

“They were difficult days, but they are over. We are just moving on and we thank God,” Massood said.

His wife added, “I can’t imagine that I went through all this. It’s behind me, but I still think about these things.”

The Salvation Army has partnered with several organizations throughout the country to help families like Massood’s and Aaina’s resettle refugees in a true display of Christian love. Most of the arriving refugees are Muslim and required relief organizations such as The Salvation Army to find culturally–appropriate food and clothing.

“For us, it’s really no different than most of the disaster work we do,” says Bob Myers, the emergency disaster services (EDS) coordinator in the Salvation Army’s USA Eastern Territory. “We work with all populations, regardless of their ethnic background.

“It’s really a testament of what we do every day in The Salvation Army, of meeting people at their area of need. It just so happens that in this case, their need involved relocating to a foreign country and us trying to make that transition as smooth as possible for them, given the circumstances.”

Afghanistan refugees walk through the airport terminal after arriving in the United States. The Salvation Army was among the relief organizations helping to relocate them to permanent housing. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Finding freedom

Some of the initial refugees were flown into Philadelphia International Airport, where Myers said The Salvation Army’s Eastern Pennsylvania & Delaware Division provided “logistical support.” About 76,000 Afghan refugees were brought to the United States under a resettlement project called “Operation Allies Welcome.”

Once the refugees were cleared, most were bussed for housing to Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, the former Fort Dix. The population there reached 14,500 at one point, but that operation phased out in late February.

“They’re sort of resettling the refugees all over the country,” Myers said.

When there was a backlog in the initial stage at Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, Myers said some of the refugees stopped at a temporary overflow facility in Camden, N.J., where The Salvation Army had personnel on site to provide food. Masood and Aaina may have passed through Camden, but they were not sure of the first location they were sent.

Seth Ditmer, EDS director for The Salvation Army’s New Jersey Division, said his team was “very active” initially. They helped to establish feeding operations in Camden on very short notice. Through a network of local vendors, The Salvation Army provided 100–150 hot, culturally–appropriate meals before phasing out operations in late August to focus on Hurricane Ida.

“We transferred oversight of the feeding operation to federal contractors working on–site but did leave behind thousands of packaged snacks and hundreds of beverages,” Ditmer said.

Joining forces to help

Myers said two of the more active Salvation Army divisions were Western Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. WEPASA has relocated families and provided furniture, while Massachusetts issued care packages.

In Pittsburgh, the Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania Division partnered with Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) and the Red Cross in welcoming more than 100 families. Sarah Siplak, volunteer coordinator for immigrant and refugee services for JFCS, said the alliance with The Salvation Army has been a “godsend.”

JFCS organized a furniture drive for the arriving refugee families that included tables and chairs, dressers, home décor, appliances, tools, and kitchenware that were stored at a Salvation Army warehouse at divisional headquarters in Pittsburgh.

“We got tons of furniture and donations,” Siplak said. “It was just insane with hundreds of packages arriving every day. Everyone there at the warehouse has been extremely helpful in bending over backwards to allow us to use the space.”

Lauren Fair, director of social services in the Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania Division, said, “That’s where we stepped in and offered to be a receiving, sorting, and distribution point. This was basically us joining forces to prepare for the influx of those families.”

The space includes bays and areas to store furniture, personal items, housewares, clothing, coats, hygiene items, baby items, and frozen foods. Toys were also stored there at Christmas. JFCS also offered a culturally sensitive food pantry. Michael Shehand, the warehouse maintenance man, said he also saw appliances, beds, mattresses, blankets, vacuums, and child car seats stored in the bays.

Refugees from Afghanistan settle at a temporary housing camp set up by the U.S. Army. On the East Coast, many refugees were housed at Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst in New Jersey. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

Engaged partners

JFCS was founded to resettle Jewish families who escaped World War II and the Holocaust but has grown to helping refugees from around the world transition to a better life.

“Our goal is to be of service to others and to help welcome families to the Pittsburgh region,” she said.

Siplak has even helped with airport pickups and said, “every arrival is different.” One family had 11 people. Another included a woman who gave birth on the military base.

“We have many, many single males,” she said. “We also have large families. It ranges.”

Siplak said language is definitely a barrier, but modern technology has been helpful.

“Some of them speak English very well,” she said. “Some of them speak no English whatsoever. Google translate has been a good friend to me. Everyone is always saying thank you. The kids are always adorable.”

She gives each child a toy to reassure them they are safe. Many are still traumatized and adjusting to a new culture and country, as well as an uncertain future.

“Our role is to make them feel welcome and to make sure they have a safe place to live when they arrive,” Siplak said.

Most of the refugees were living on U.S. military bases and had to pass COVID–19 protocols before traveling. They stayed in hotels, where they developed a sense of community, until permanent housing was available.

“I think they’re very grateful for the work we’re doing,” she said. “Thanks to all of our amazing donors, they get all of their necessities and a little bit more when they arrive.”

The Salvation Army in Massachusetts has provided resources to more than 500 refugee families in the Bay State and Connecticut, including large food boxes, some of which featured special halal food. The boxes also included hygiene products, toys, winter clothing, socks, and PPE, said Emily Mew, the EDS state coordinator for The Salvation Army’s Massachusetts Division.

“The Salvation Army is also working with organizations in the central and western parts of the commonwealth to provide vouchers to our thrift stores for clothing or household items,” Mew said.

Meeting needs without discrimination

The Salvation Army’s partners, the JFCS and Catholic Charities in western Massachusetts, and Worcester Together  Refugee Response Coalition in the central part of the commonwealth, all identified clothing and household items as needs.

In the early stages, The Salvation Army worked with other volunteer groups, including the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center, which welcomed the refugees at Boston’s Logan International Airport. The Salvation Army provided food boxes, blankets, personal protective equipment (PPE), diapers, hygiene kits, toiletries, and even backpacks full of school supplies to the effort.

“When a family that arrives from Afghanistan at midnight, they don’t want to be figuring out where to get food or soap,” explained Chris Farrand, the EDS director for The Salvation Army’s Massachusetts Division.

Siplak said the work is “very fulfilling” when she sees a family helped, and she praised The Salvation Army’s role.

“It’s a difficult job and a lot of hours, but what’s important at the end of the day is that we’re helping these families,” she said. “It’s always good to do something that is serving someone else. I know this work is having a direct effect.

“It’s all about looking for the helpers and I feel so enveloped in a community of people who are wanting to help and doing what they can to help. In that way it’s fulfilling and makes it all worth it. We are in a crisis right now with these families and it feels wonderful to be part of a solution. We’re so thankful on so many levels for this partnership with The Salvation Army.”

Read more from the latest issue of SAconnects.