Two Afghan families make a fresh start in the basement of a Newburyport church

The cinder block cellar of a former Episcopal church in Newburyport is alive these days with the sounds of children playing, teenagers chatting and families gathering over meals. They are full of enthusiasm and hope.

The basement had been the site of religious education classes and religious gatherings. Today, two large families from Afghanistan – two sets of parents and 15 children in all – call it home. They arrived in Newburyport in mid-December and early January after some time on US military bases. They fled their homeland during the US evacuation and Taliban takeover in late August and are among 2,000 evacuees resettling in Massachusetts.

Both fathers worked for the Afghan government – ​​one in the army, serving alongside US troops. This made them direct targets of the Taliban.

Their children range in age from toddlers to teenagers. Mid-afternoon, the teenagers come home from school – they attend Newburyport Public Schools – and descend the steps to the basement.

Malija, 12, Sanjar, 5, and Hadya, 10, play with a smartphone in their basement accommodation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Malija, 12, says school has been her favorite experience in the US so far, and the best part of it is “speaking English”.

The members of the family meet in one of the large spaces transformed into a bedroom. There are several twin beds, bookcases and suitcases with clothes piled on top of them. The long, wide outdoor hallway is painted lemon yellow, made even brighter by the fluorescent lights.

It’s easy to forget that there’s an active church above until the sounds of the organ echo from the sanctuary during an afternoon practice session. The Afghan guests are Muslims and community members have helped them feel at home here by donating prayer rugs and Qurans.

At the other end of the hallway is a living room with sofas and coffee tables. And around the corner, a makeshift dining room. It has a glass door refrigerator like the one you find in a convenience store. It is well stocked with vegetables, yogurt, eggs, halal meat and a few cupcakes.

One of the fathers, Sami, 42, takes a seat at the table to talk about his new life here. He wears a baseball cap, sweatpants and flip flops.

“I am grateful from all Americans because I got all the help,” says Sami through an interpreter named Abdul, an Afghan evacuee who previously worked as an interpreter for the US military and who recently relocated to another town in Massachusetts. “I will never forget their help, support and assistance.”

Sami and a few members of his family stand outside their rooms at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newburyport.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sami and a few members of his family stand outside their rooms at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Sami is his middle name. He says the Taliban have visited his brother’s home in Afghanistan several times to ask where he is. He worries about the safety of his family there. But for now, he has to focus on his position here. His dreams of life in America are modest.

“I didn’t have a car in Afghanistan. My house was unprofessional, a very nice house,” he says. “Our economic situation was not good. The salary I received in Afghanistan, I just paid it to my family because I have a big family, and I also had to support my parents.”

His family in Afghanistan still needs his help.

“Yeah, my family expects more from me to support them financially, because there is no work [there] these days, he explains. So I get calls from my brothers, my parents, my sisters. And they were like, ‘You’re in the United States of America. And you have to work hard to find money for me. “

He admits it’s a lot of pressure. He doesn’t have a job yet.

“I don’t know how much money I will make here, whether I can support my family from here or not,” he says.

Reverend Jarred Mercer holds a phone while Sami speaks with an interpreter on the other end of the line so they can communicate.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Reverend Jarred Mercer holds a phone while Sami speaks with an interpreter on the other end of the line so they can communicate. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At the end of the hall, one of Sami’s sons shows off his English by counting his family’s beds, ending in “10”.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

St. Paul’s priest Rev. Jarred Mercer says he hopes his support and the community will help families feel comfortable despite the pressures they face.

“They suffered an unbearable amount of trauma and [have had] their entire uprooted lives,” Mercer says. “I think the most important thing we wanted them to understand is that…we’re very happy they’re here. We want them to thrive and thrive and, you know, we want to support them and love them however we can.”

This includes showing them some fun. Recently, Mercer took the families sledding, along with her own children.

He originally offered St. Paul’s basement to the International Institute of New England resettlement agency to temporarily house Afghan evacuees, but ended up doing more than just providing housing.

When the church learned that it would receive at least one family during the holidays, it launched an appeal for donations.

“And within a day and a half we were turning things down because we had received too many beds, too many bedding, too many items of clothing – which is remarkable to see,” Mercer recalled.

People also donated money; he says this is what families need most.

The New England International Institute continues to help Afghan arrivals, but it is stretched thin. It is helping 400 Afghan evacuees resettle in Massachusetts with just 15 direct case managers, according to its president.

Some of the children return to St. Paul's Episcopal Church after school.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Some of the children return to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church after school. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Mercer therefore manages the daily needs of the guests living in his church. He also organized a task force of local volunteers, including teachers, doctors, social workers and housing experts. They provide free services to newcomers. And they are looking for affordable and creative options for permanent housing for families.

“But it became more and more clear, and we became more and more committed to the idea of ​​long-term support so they could get to that point of self-sufficiency,” Mercer said. “And for families of this size, it’s going to take time.”

Volunteers are also helping other Afghan evacuees locally. In Newburyport alone, there are 40 Afghan citizens who fled their country after the Taliban takeover — all 19 living in St. Paul’s and three families supported by other local churches, according to Mercer.

Each Afghan evacuee receives a one-time payment of $1,225 from the federal government. In Massachusetts, the state grants each of them a financial aid of $2,250. The New England International Institute says it is targeting state funds on housing families and individuals for 12 months as they strive to become self-sufficient. They also have access to public benefits, including food aid and medical coverage. The United States has brought many Afghans here for temporary humanitarian reasons, but their status is uncertain. Eventually, they will have to apply for visas or asylum.

This supportive blanket has empowered young Afghans, including 17-year-old Afzal, to do what young people are meant to do: dream big.

“My hope and my dream is just to study hard and become a doctor or an engineer or a teacher and go back to Afghanistan and serve my own people there as well,” Afzal said through the interpreter. “So if peace returns and everything goes well, of course I will go back to Afghanistan. But then I will have realized my dream.”

Sami’s eldest child, Benafsha, 19, is equally determined.

“With all the opportunities available here, I want [do] all my studies, and then I want to become a doctor,” she says in Dari, translated by Abdul. “I will be proud to be a doctor in the future and just to serve people.

Members of Sami's family in a basement room at St. Paul's.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Members of Sami’s family in a basement room at St. Paul’s. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Benafsha’s mother says the lives of her eight children would have been very different had they remained in Afghanistan, especially the girls.

“If we were there, our daughters wouldn’t be able to go to school,” she says. “I’m really proud [of] my children they learned English and everything. So when I watch my children go to school, I feel happy.”

And the kids look happy. They say the schools in Newburyport are much better than what they had in Afghanistan.

They can also take English classes taught by volunteers at the church five days a week. Teenagers and adults learn in one room, younger ones in another.

After a few word exercises, the youngest jump to their feet to practice their English with an American children’s classic.

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes; knees and toes”, they sing, accompanied by their teacher. Then they burst into applause and cheers.

Sanjar, 5, cartwheels in the basement hallway of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newburyport.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sanjar, 5, cartwheels in the basement hallway of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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