One day in 1977 when my family was living in Arlington, Virginia, we helped our church community resettle a refugee family from Southeast Asia to the United States. My older sister Monica recently recalled: “There were so many kids in such a small apartment. It made a huge impression on me, about giving.” We both remember helping to unload boxes of clothes and linens that we had collected to help this family who had traveled far to seek refuge in the United States.
These memories have flooded back to me often in the past eight months, first as news of the refugees fleeing from Afghanistan occupied the airwaves in August, and now as we prepare to welcome up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine. While the United Sates is a country of immigrants, our history of welcoming refugees has shaped our nation. In 1975, the fall of Saigon marked the flow of over 120,000 Vietnamese refugees and others involved in the “mass migration of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of conflicts the U.S. had been involved with,” according to an NBC News report from 2020.
As the United States embarks on our second large resettlement in less than a year, I’ve thought about the ways my family and classmates helped new arrivals to Arlington feel welcome. Fortunately, many talented and generous leaders have been thinking about this too, and one result is Welcome.US, “A new national initiative build to inspire, mobilize, and empower Americans from all corners of the country to welcome and support those seeking refuge here.” Founded in response to a widespread desire to help the influx of Afghan emigres last summer, the organization has quickly become a hub for donations, volunteer opportunities, and many resources for those newly arrived in the United States seeking housing, employment, or tips on navigating U.S. life.
Let’s Welcome Our New NeighborsWelcome.US
While a refugee crises can seem far removed from the comforts of our daily life in the United States, it felt personal to me last August when the U.S. departure from Afghanistan sent many Afghanis fleeing for their lives–including a young man I had been counseling since October 2020 in my role as an MBA admissions consultant for Fortuna Admissions. I enjoyed working with him. Clearly motivated and bright, I felt he would be an asset to any top business program. We met regularly on Zoom, and I helped him explore his fascinating life story that would become the basis for his MBA admissions applications.
I learned over time how determined and resilient he is. After losing his father to the Taliban, he began selling gum and pencils outside an elementary school instead of attending it as a young child, since his mother was forbidden to work and he needed to support his family. After the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, he spent long hours studying English, excelled in school, and eventually earned his scholarship to university and later a job with the U.S. State Department.
When I began working with him in 2020, he had hoped to apply to a top U.S. MBA program for the 2021-22 application cycle. Then the U.S. departure from Afghanistan left his life, and that of his family’s, in danger. I was in regular email contact with him as he attempted to flee the capital, finally leaving in one of the final days of transport in August 2021. This led to many months in resettlement camps, and a great deal of angst and uncertainty for his family.
With the news of a new wave of Ukrainian refugees soon to make their homes in the United States, I was wondering how my Afghan friend was faring, as several months had passed since we last connected. When he responded to my email last week, I could tell right away that he had turned a corner. He was happy to share that he was now settled into a new home with his family and was working as a data analyst. Best of all, he’s been admitted to a top-tier MBA program, which he’ll be attending this fall.
While it’s easy to think, ‘What difference will the little time/money/hospitality I can spare make to the many thousands coming to the US?’ Your efforts can, and will make an impact. While we only met once, I am confident the family we helped resettle in Arlington 45 years ago felt truly welcomed by our efforts. And decades later it still reminds me that giving something as small as a smile can transform uncertainty into hope.
One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals.Jean Vanier