GREENSBORO — The fellow traveler followed the young Afghan couple off the plane at Piedmont Triad International Airport, worried because, well, they appeared worried.
The pilot on the flight from Atlanta had announced that the couple helped American soldiers and were on their way to Greensboro. But no one onboard spoke their language, although they could understand when the young man, traveling in a wheelchair, repeated “Virginia.”
That’s where the young man thought they were supposed to be going as part of a mass resettlement of Afghans who either actively helped U.S. soldiers during the decades-long war in the country or are fleeing the resulting turmoil from the troops leaving. He had heard other Afghan families were there.
Instead, the young family, with a 2-year-old and a month-old infant — born in mid-flight out of the war-torn country — are the first Afghans out of Kabul to arrive in the Triad and one of the first in the state. Their names aren’t being released for privacy as they get accustomed to their new surroundings, but also because of the haste in which people were removed from Kabul.
Even the resettlement agency in Greensboro didn’t know much about them.
Only that they were supposed to be there.
And a few dozen people were waiting.
“It makes me happy,” Caroline Hipple, here for the High Point Market, said after seeing the balloons and banners awaiting them. “They clearly have a village.”
The journey had taken the Afghan refugees thousands of miles from Kabul to Germany to a military base in Texas and late Thursday night to the concourse at PTI where they were met with cheers.
The 26-year-old father, who had been injured helping American soldiers, was beginning to understand his new reality. He had not heard of Greensboro.
The wife, 22, managed a smile as the two-year-old stared blankly at all the lights and cameras.
“Welcome home,” Million Mekonnen, executive director of the refugee resettlement group N.C. African Services Coalition, said with the help of an interpreter.
Mekonnen’s agency is sponsoring the family, but the congregation at College Park Baptist Church has prepared housing in north Greensboro that has everything from a crib to fresh linen in the bathrooms. The congregation also put down a deposit and paid the first few months of rent.
While church members say the effort created an energy in the congregation, they agreed to limit the number of people waiting at the airport so it wouldn’t overwhelm the family.
But over the weeks to come those members and others joining them from the community — the retired attorney, the handy man, the college professor and others — have pledged to help them find jobs, start bank accounts and show them how to take the bus.
“I think they are feeling better,” said Miriam Shahnawaz, a former registered nurse at Moses Cone Hospital, who spent a year serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and was helping to translate.
The family and the others like them now being placed across the country are referred to as “humanitarian parolees,” and while brought here during a response to a crisis, they don’t have the same rights and benefits as refugees who have likely spent years and even decades in camps before being allowed into the United States.
Those parolees, like refugees who meet the government’s legal definition, get limited cash assistance of about $1,200 to cover 90 days. But the parolees are not eligible for food stamps, Medicaid or some other services as they settle into communities.
It would take an act of Congress to change their legal status — which means there are lots of gaps to cover in the towns and cities that will be their new homes.
Some refugees have likely never been outside of their village. If they are from a city like Kabul, then they would at least be familiar with technology.
Still, no matter where they resettle in the U.S., they are strangers in a strange land.
“If I were coming from another country in those conditions, I would want somebody to say, ‘I’m here to walk with you through some of your journey,’” said Michie Dew, who is a part of the College Park team.
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College Park had been preparing for this family since late last week, when the Rev. Michael Usey, the church’s pastor, found out from African Services Coalition about their arrival.
He announced it the next day during church — and the effort took off from there.
Usey said that the congregation is trying to be a good neighbor.
“Every religion that I know of puts a great emphasis on welcoming the stranger, and Christianity is no different,” Usey said. “Jesus’ family was displaced in Bethlehem for his birth, and later immigrates to Egypt. Jesus’ last parable before his death taught his friends that, when they welcomed the stranger, they actually were welcoming him.”
Usey, whose congregation has been involved with helping resettle families in the past, points to the many churches, temples, synagogues and mosques also eager to welcome the Afghan people.
“And not just religious people either, but atheists and people without a faith community are, of course, welcoming and being generous with these new arrivals,” Usey said. “This is the best of America.”
Resettlement agencies like the African Services Coalition, Church World Service and World Relief Triad had been put on notice and under contract as new arrivals are processed at military bases around the country with tens of thousands expected to enter the country in the weeks and months to come. So they are busy preparing locally, and reaching out to the community — for volunteers, sponsors, financial support.
The African Services Coalition is scheduled to resettle 33 people in the weeks to come, ranging from individuals to families of five and six people. Like other agencies, it’s still looking for sponsors. The group held “interest” meetings and recently drew a crowd of 150 people.
“They’ve seen those horrific things on the TV,” Mekennon said.
The resettlement agency has been talking to Cone Health for help with immunizations and other potential health needs.
“It’s just heartwarming to see the response,” Mekennon said.
Last Sunday, when Usey took the situation before his congregation, more than $12,000 in donations were offered. Before the day was over, the list of items needed for the Afghan family’s apartment — from beds to towels — were claimed and marked off the list.
Early on, Usey asked certain people in the congregation to oversee things like meeting the family at the airport so efforts wouldn’t be duplicated.
Don Prince, the manager of the Center for Creative Leadership, and his wife Cheryl, have been stationed in Moscow and Belgium and traveled around the world teaching leadership classes in at least 45 countries. As a former campus minister and administrator, he previously worked with international college students.
As soon as Prince heard about the family’s impending arrival, he offered to get their apartment together.
“I have cultural sensitivities, but I also didn’t want to come across as, ‘You need to listen to me,’” Prince said earlier in the week as he drove a rented U-Haul to pick up donated furniture.
But he has been able to use his organizational skills and experience with international travel to help guide the effort.
So, when some of the volunteers wanted to have fresh pajamas waiting for the new family, Prince suggested not buying sleeping clothes for Muslim adults.
But he also saw lots of ways people were trying to be helpful.
“It was nice to see everyone’s skills coming in to play,” Prince said. “Someone donated artwork because he has that interest and love in it.”
After learning Thursday morning that the family would be here even earlier than expected — like later that night— Usey wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page with so much excitement among them.
So Usey typed this email:
One quick reminder: Once the family is in the apartment, we will have to wait to be invited to enter (I know you know this), but I understand it’s even more a sign of respect for Afghan culture. I’m learning, too.
Lists were checked off throughout the day as the hours were counted down.
“I am happy to drive them if somebody amazing will install the car seats safely in my car,” wrote Terri, a congregation member, on the group email.
She got several responses.
“One of my weird skills is installing car seats,” responded Meagan, another church member. “I can meet at the airport early to install them. Maybe 9 p.m.?”
When Sherry Wyche and her wife Alyson stopped by the house, they entered with a keen eye.
“I came over here as a new mom, as a woman and as a wife and kind of used my lens to say: Whoa, we don’t have rugs for the bathroom?” said Alyson of making a few last-minute purchases.
For many College Park members, it felt good knowing that a family once in harm has the opportunity to find their footing again.
“It’s all rooted in a lot of love,” said Sherry, who also helped to put together a bed frame and mattress that arrived earlier Thursday morning.
The congregation had chosen an apartment for the family that had been recently refurbished, is near the bus line and within walking distances of a grocery store and thrift shop.
The group has formally committed to surround the family for at least three months.
Usey said the training through the resettlement agencies helped those who volunteered to understand their roles.
“We are not making decisions for the family,” Usey said. “Our role, if they ask, is to lay out the choices and help them understand the consequences of those choices.
“We’ve also learned not to burn ourselves out, not to do too much. And not to overwhelm them.”
He remembers taking a family from Cuba to Harris Teeter shortly after they arrived, and the mother’s response after seeing rows of pickles.
“She just kind of broke down crying,” Usey said. “First of all, she had never seen 70 kinds of pickles. ... It was just too much.”
So at PTI late Thursday, Usey and the others greeted them with lots of smiles. And as the couple and their children got into a Volvo, they headed with a small group to that home, with a hot ethnic meal waiting for them.
And that commitment from the church.
“Setting up an apartment and welcoming them at the airport is the super easy part,” Usey said. “Walking with them in the coming weeks and months — that is the true test of resolve to be friends.”
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.