Finding Refuge, Embracing Compassion: How Refugees Remind Us of America's True Spirit on Independence Day
As we celebrate 247 years of American independence, we are reminded that we were a nation of newcomers to this great land. As Robert Frost eloquently shared in “The Gift Outright,” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, “The land was ours before we were the land’s. She was our land more than a hundred years (b)efore we were her people… Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (the deed of gift was many deeds of war)...”
Frost’s message remains true for millions of refugees who have fled their countries seeking safety on our shores. They have given the gift outright by leaving their homelands—often plagued by violence—and seeking refuge in a new land. This has fueled compassion in Americans as we build on a fundamental truth of our national identity—we are also a nation of Welcomers.
As a member of the Holy Trinity Church community in Washington, D.C., we sponsored a family of four who fled Afghanistan in 2021. Hameed, the father, graciously shared with me their story.
A CONVERSATION WITH AN AFGHAN REFUGEE, HAMEED
Hameed, tell us about your family.
I have been married to my wife for nine years, and we’ve been through a lot together. We have two high-energy boys, ages 6 and 7. My parents and five siblings remain in Kabul. My father works as a nurse. My mother is a homemaker. My three sisters cannot go to school. My younger brother took the last commercial flight from Kabul to the U.S. He is a Fulbright Scholar, graduated from Duke, and is visiting me now as he just got his Special Immigrant Visa approved and is seeking permanent residence. It’s a tale of two very different experiences in two very different countries.
Life is better for us here now. My wife has a part-time job and is taking English classes. She wants to support her family in Afghanistan. Our two boys completed their first year of school in the U.S., and they love it. I work at Accenture for Upwardly Global—a project very close to my heart that provides professional integration for refugees. We work with employers and recruiters to make them aware that many refugees have skills and talents of value to their companies.
Why did you leave Afghanistan, and what was your journey like getting out of Kabul?
I never wanted to leave Afghanistan. I came to the U.S. in 2012 and studied at Georgetown University. The day after graduation in 2014, I returned to Kabul with a sense of responsibility and commitment. Thousands of Afghans were educated in the West, and most returned to be part of the foundation for a free and progressive Afghanistan.
Our lives were at risk, but we believed a new generation of Afghans could effect change. We could not imagine the country would fall at the speed that it did.
When the country collapsed in August 2021, it made it difficult to remain there, since we were promoting Western values that were hostile to Taliban values. I was also a senior official in the Afghan government and at higher risk. I could not justify staying in Afghanistan. I got in touch with former American classmates and Georgetown professors.
One early morning, U.S. military personnel called to tell me to go to a secret location. That same day, the Taliban stated they would no longer allow Afghans to leave. We were in our car, stuck outside the airport for 26 hours with thousands of people. We came under crossfire, and I had to put my children under my feet and put suitcases by the windows of the car so the bullets would not penetrate. When we entered the airport, the ISIS terrorists attacked—186 Afghans and 14 U.S. servicemen lost their lives.
Forty hours later, we were cleared to fly. We were evacuated to Albania on August 28, 2021, where the Spirit of America NGO took care of everything for us. We arrived in the Dulles International Airport on March 22, 2022, and went to a processing center in Leesburg, Va.
What have your American sponsors meant to your family?
I will always be so grateful to our Holy Trinity sponsors. I was overwhelmed by the idea of ordinary Americans coming together because of their compassion and kindness to embrace a family that had just survived a highly traumatic experience. We were matched on April 21, 2022. The team provided housing, clothing, and other material assistance that enabled me to focus on looking for a job, submitting legal papers, getting my kids enrolled in school, and more. That support was critical—but what mattered even more was their encouragement, kindness, advice, and joyful outings with family and our new friends.
Americans celebrate our independence on July 4. We have grown to more than 330 million people, thanks in part to being a nation of immigrants and newcomers. As a newcomer, yourself, what would you share with the American people regarding this special anniversary?
I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to rebuild my life in this country. I’m grateful that my children have an opportunity to look to a brighter future. I also want Americans to understand that they have a wonderful country. They have every reason to be proud, but also to understand that the country has the capacity to do so much good around the world.
Today, we are thriving. We are employed and paying taxes. Our kids are going to one of the best schools, and we feel part of an American community. My plea is to keep your doors open to those who are suffering, recognize the contributions you can make, and continue to be a country for everyone.
Why would you encourage other Americans to pursue sponsorship
This is a great example of how ordinary citizens can come together to do extraordinary things and support a major national effort. It’s inspiring for refugees to see private citizens in action—when the refugees are on their own feet, they will be more inclined and inspired to give back sooner. Other countries faced with refugee influx have a lot to learn from the U.S. example. There is nothing better for a refugee family than to be welcomed with open hearts and arms.
Welcome.US is a national initiative built to inspire, mobilize, and empower Americans from all corners of the country to welcome and support those seeking refuge here and help them thrive. Learn more here. John Bridgeland and Cecilia Muñoz—both of whom sponsored newcomers—are Co-Founders and Co-Chairs of Welcome.US, which is led by CEO Nazanin Ash and President Anya McMurray.