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Virginia faith groups partner to assist Afghan refugees

person folds coat
Hurunnessa Fariad, the ADAMS Center's head of outreach, sorts through donated coats. (Photo courtesy of Pam Hervey)

For a deeper look at this report, watch a television feature on Afghan refugees in Virginia tonight, Mar. 3 at 8:00 p.m., on VPM News Focal Point .

Government-funded resettlement agencies in Virginia often partner with houses of worship to help support refugees. The ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia has helped hundreds of refugees, including a family still traumatized by the violence they witnessed when they escaped Afghanistan in 2021. 

“It was a very bad day,” says Afghan refugee Diba, whose last name is being withheld for safety reasons. “It was a very bad, dangerous day. It is such an experience that it’s really hard to describe with words. If you have seen the photos, you must know how bad the situation was. Everyone was being trampled or killed. People’s clothes were being torn apart.” 

When the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan last summer, thousands of Afghans rushed to Kabul Airport, desperate to escape the brutal rule of the Taliban, trying to make it to America as refugees. Since then, over 5,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in Virginia, and they were initially housed on Army bases around the state. The last refugees left Fort Pickett, in Blackstone, on Feb. 1.

“ADAMS Center stands for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society,” says Hurunnessa Fariad, the Center’s head of outreach. It is the second-largest mosque in America, serving 25,000 Muslims in Northern Virginia. In partnership with other groups, the ADAMS Center offers spiritual and physical aid to Afghan refugees, through its social services, youth, education and Imam’s departments. Fariad says they have collected over 1,000 coats for Afghan refugees – who landed in Virginia in the thick of winter – along with donated hygiene products, food and other items to help meet the physical needs of the newly arrived. 

“[The refugees] just, most of them came with just the clothes on their back,” Fariad says.

“Such a terrible and awful situation,” says Nilo, another Afghan refugee new to Virginia. “People mostly wanted to get out of the country, because they didn’t accept the Taliban governing then. It was such an awful situation. We came [to America] in a traumatic way.” 

Afghan refugees face many challenges beyond the basics of food, clothing and shelter, explains Kristyn Peck of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area. Peck’s group is also helping with the resettlement efforts and went from serving about 500 refugees a year, before the fall of Kabul, to now serving 500 a month.

“Many of the Afghans we're serving right now, you know, they still don't have any employment authorization documents, so they're not able to legally work. They certainly don't have a long-term pathway to legal status. And so, they need immigration attorneys, and they still will have to apply for an immigration status such as asylum,” Peck says. “So, I think one of the challenges is that the clock on the government-provided programs starts ticking regardless of if those documents are in place, but it's just not realistic to expect someone to be self-sufficient [in] three months when they're not even getting the documents that allow them to be eligible for employment until they've been here for six weeks to three months.”

Many of the refugees are infants and children, like young Elyas, another Afghan refugee the ADAMS Center is helping.

“I want to go to school. I want to study so that I can reach a high place and have a good future. I want to bring my parents here,” he says.

Fariad understands his perspective. “I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan,” she says. “It’s very personal, having come to this country as a child refugee. … It makes me feel that I have a lot to give back because I was one of the privileged ones to be able to come here at a very young age.” 

According to the Department of Homeland Security, all Afghan refugees have left the military bases nationwide that housed them since last summer. More than 76,000 Afghan nationals have now resettled in communities across the United States. 

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.
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