Irvington Presbyterian Church and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church combined their outreach efforts recently to co-sponsor a refugee family from Afghanistan.
The three adults arrived in Westchester in January. The churches worked with HIAS (formerly called Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the Rivertowns Rotary, and Hearts and Home for Refugees to find and equip an apartment for them in Yonkers, teach them about daily life here, and look for jobs.
“This has been in the works for a while,” Frances Bean, who is married to Gareth Evans, the rector of St. Barnabas, told the Enterprise. “We were preparing for the arrival of the family since early fall, working with HIAS. The [U.S.] State Department contacts resettlement agencies [such as HIAS] and then they reach out to resettlement groups in different communities, such as churches.”
The ecumenical group’s work for the family was divided between the two congregations, who kept in touch with HIAS while the family — Kamel, 27, his wife Maryam, 25, and his brother Sabir, 22 — made their way to New York. The journey took them several months, beginning at Kabul airport when the city fell to the Taliban in August 2021, with stops at other U.S. air bases until they reached New York.
The family is now living in Yonkers. Kamel works at a clothing store and Sabir at a restaurant. Maryam, who works from home as a translator, is expecting twins.
In an interview with the Enterprise on May 2, Kamel talked about the danger that faced Afghan citizens who worked for the American military or U.S. contractors, and how desperate they were to leave when Kabul fell. Kamel had worked for a U.S. contractor, hiring Afghan translators; Sabir was a translator for the U.S. Special Forces; and Maryam was a political affairs assistant for the United Nations.
Years before the Taliban took over, Kamel had felt his life was in danger because of working for military contractors. About 10 years ago, when working in construction for the U.S. military, his boss’ car was bombed. If he hadn’t had to pick up a family member at the airport that day, he could have been in that car too. “I was so young,” he said. “It shocked me.”
In the following years, as he moved to take other jobs, he and his family and friends received phone calls from insurgents trying to find his location. One day, out shopping with his wife, he realized he was being followed. They decided they had to leave the country.
It was hard to assemble all the recommendations and documents needed to apply for the special U.S. visa program, designed for Afghans who felt threatened because of their jobs for U.S. entities. He took a job in Kandahar with a contractor that provided translators to the U.S. military. Part of his job involved going to the gate of the military compound to let job applicants inside. But as a result, he became recognizable to anyone who was in the vicinity as a man who was working for the U.S.
His wife, alarmed at the continued threats, said he should come to Kabul where he would be safer. Through her employers at the U.N., he secured a plane ticket from Kandahar — just in time, because Kandahar fell to the Taliban soon after. “At that time it was safer in Kabul than in Kandahar, where my life was a hell,” he said.
He grew a long beard and tried to blend in and not be recognized. But when it became clear that Kabul would also fall, the whole family — Kamel, Maryam, his parents, and his younger brother and sister — went to the airport and joined the surging crowd trying to get the officials to examine their documents and let them through the gate. After days with no progress, his parents, younger brother, and sister gave up and went home, leaving Kamel, Maryam, and Sabir at the airport.
“My mom was very worried about me,” he said. “My wife fainted from the heat. There were the people pushing each other. Nobody could breathe. The gate was very small.”
He remembers people trying to break the gate, and the marines using smoke on the crowd. “And one woman, they used a flash gun,” he said. “It injured her and the marines just took her inside. Finally, marines came to us and grabbed us from the middle of those people.”
They were flown to Qatar, then to a U.S. air base in Germany, then to the Philadelphia airport, and then to Holloman air base in New Mexico.
“Alongside all of this, I was happy,” he said. “I just escaped from Afghanistan. I am alive now. I am safe, and my wife, and my brother.”
At Holloman, HIAS contacted him. “HIAS told us, they found a volunteer team from a church community and they want to help you. Frances [Bean] contacted Maryam and said, ‘We found a house for you here in New York.’ We were so excited when she said that.”
At JFK, “I was scared — nervous about where I should go. But when I saw the big board, I was so happy.” Bean was standing there holding up a sheet of poster board with the family’s name written on it, welcoming them to New York.
The committee members from the churches had set up the apartment. “Everything was here already,” he said. “I felt like everybody gave me their house, from A to Zed. The furniture. The kitchen things. The carpet.” On Sabir’s birthday, they hosted the ministers’ families from both churches. “My wife made some Afghan food and we all ate together. We were sitting at one table.”
These days, although he worries about his relatives in Afghanistan, he marvels at the freedom he enjoys. “Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming. Sometimes I say, ‘This is not true.’” But then, he realizes, “I’m safe.”