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As New England resettlement agencies prep for evacuees, Afghan volunteers draw from their personal experience

Freshta Abedi (right) at an Afghan diaspora protest in Washington, D.C. on September 12, 2021.
Freshta Abedi
New England Public Media
Freshta Abedi (right) at an Afghan diaspora protest in Washington, D.C. on September 12, 2021.

Updated at 2:00 p.m.

Refugee resettlement agencies in New England are preparing to welcome hundreds of Afghanistan evacuees. Volunteers are lending their expertise to help agencies with the new arrivals. That includes people who have personally been through many of the same experiences.

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Freshta Abedi is a 38-year-old chemical process engineer by day and Afghan cultural mentor by night. She volunteers at Ascentria, a resettlement agency with Massachusetts offices in West Springfield and Worcester, and another in Concord, New Hampshire.

She recently sat in a conference room at the Worcester office, furiously typing in a Google spreadsheet.

“We are preparing a list of items, some cultural notes, a list of local grocery stores, nonperishable food items that would be acceptable as donation items. Because people have been on the camp, so they must be craving some real Afghan food,” Abedi said.

Ascentria managers asked Abedi to list what she enjoyed as a child, born and raised in Afghanistan. The Taliban took control of Kabul, her hometown, in 1992. She was 9. Abedi remembers her last day of grade school.

“We took shelter behind some desks because the teachers, they put the desks down in front of the windows, so that if any bullets come, it doesn't hurt anyone,” Abedi said. “At some point we all had to run. I tripped and I fell down and all I saw was like a piece of hand, like somebody's hand just on the street. By the time I came home, we didn't have time to process everything that we saw, you know, on the way, on the road.”

Her family quickly fled to Pakistan in 1993. Abedi said Islamic extremism increased during what she described as her traumatic decade in Pakistan. She recalls one time when she was walking to school, fully covered according to Islamic teachings, and was attacked.

“All I could do was scream, and I believe I had fainted,” Abedi said. “I hit my head somewhere. I think some people had came to help and there was some fighting and beating. All I remember from that time is that one of the [men who helped me] — it was an Afghan guy — all he told me [was], ‘Pull yourself together and walk away.’ And that's exactly what I did. I put my clothes back the way it should have been and I started running.”

She was targeted for being a woman in Pakistan and was in more danger for being Afghan. Years later, her Pakistani landlord warned her mother that it was just going to get worse.

“He was like, ‘I know what's happening here and I'm going to tell you that things are going to deteriorate even more. And for you, Afghans, this is going to get worse in Pakistan,’” Abedi remembered the landlord saying. “‘So your son, he's a man, he can handle himself. He can survive a lot of things. Take your two daughters and go to America.’”

Her brother went back to Afghanistan, where he married and had a child. They eventually fled to Germany and, Freshta said, he “feels safer there” today.

For Abedi, escape came in in 2003, when her grandmother, who lived in Worcester, was able to sponsor her, her younger sister and mother.

“We came as a family sponsorship immigrant, but I see a lot of similarities with what's happening now,” Abedi said. “Ascentria or a local organization was my mom's side of the family. Somebody received us from the airport, same as what Ascentria is doing right now. Like we stayed with [family] for almost a month, kind of like what the co-sponsors are doing right now with the Afghan evacuees. The pain is the same. The emotions are the same.”

But the status is different. Abedi was able to get her green card within two weeks under a family sponsorship. Most of the Afghan evacuees coming now are designated as humanitarian parolees by the State Department. They are not designated as refugees, meaning they do not have a direct path to citizenship and will not receive federal benefits.

“Agencies like Ascentria — all across America — they can only do fundraising and support certain number of families,” Abedi said. “Nobody planned for this, and agencies were drained to begin with [like] the refugee resettlement program, which means that they are lacking cash right now. They're lacking funds.”

Ascentria is trying to address the needs of humanitarian parolees by adopting a new resettlement model. They are assigning an American cultural mentor to help families acclimate.

“It's not just one case manager helping them — they have a team of people helping them,” Abedi said. “There are people from education backgrounds, all sorts of areas, and they're not just supporting them with providing financial support or a home. They're also educating them about [American] systems, helping them understand the types of fields available to them.”

Abedi is excited to keep volunteering, helping Afghan arrivals process their horrific recent months, and adjust to their new environment.

“I'm very hopeful for their future, but I'm not very hopeful for people in Afghanistan,” Abedi said. “I think what we are doing here is great, but we need to do more for — I need to do more for people back there.”

Each resettlement agency has committed to resettling a certain number of Afghan evacuees. Ascentria's two offices in Massachusetts, and one in New Hampshire, expect to resettle about 500 Afghan people.

They could begin arriving as early as this weekend.

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