While volunteers at the American Afghan Alliance of Georgia were still carrying in donated coats, shoes, and a sewing machine, the family they were bringing the items for shook out a gold-colored tablecloth and laid it on the floor. Before the volunteers could put the donations down, the mother, who spoke no English, motioned for them to sit cross-legged on the floor, where she began serving them lunch — a spiced egg dish and flat, round bread, sprinkled with sesame seeds. This family had escaped from Afghanistan just months earlier, arriving in Atlanta with almost nothing. But their first thought was not about the donations of shiny American goods the volunteers had brought. Instead, their first thought was to take care of the volunteers — the people trying to help them.
This family had been evacuated by U.S. troops after President Joe Biden announced on May 1, 2021, that after 20 years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops would be withdrawing fully from military bases there. This resulted in Taliban forces capturing the Afghan capital, Kabul, on August 30, 2021. Since then, thousands of Afghan immigrants who had helped U.S. troops or were employed by the U.S. government fled to the U.S. to escape the Taliban. Many families left behind not only belongings, but also their careers, bank accounts, and family members to rebuild their lives here in the U.S. The AAAG supports these families through donations of money, clothing, furniture, household goods, and through community building to help them get back on their feet.
The AAAG, based in Decatur, Georgia, has helped and is still helping about 300 families settle in Atlanta. Co-founded by Hogai Nassery and Zack Poyan, both Afghan-born Americans, the AAAG is a nonprofit organization providing direct aid and other assistance to Afghan immigrants to help them gain stability and eventually become financially independent. According to Nassery, when she and Poyan saw Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, they felt the urgent need to prepare for the large influx of people. She said that private and public resettlement agencies were overwhelmed by the number of refugees arriving. The AAAG was created to help fill the gaps where other agencies like the International Rescue Committee and New American Pathways were falling short of much-needed resources.
“The resettlement agencies had been really shrunk,” said Nassery. “They had been shrunk down because, during the Trump years, there were no refugees coming, and the way they get their funding is by settling refugees and getting grants. They weren’t getting those grants, and they had lost most of their staff, and now all of a sudden they were being asked to welcome thousands of people in a very short period of time.”
Nassery said that under normal circumstances, resettlement agencies would be helping only two to three families a month and would get four weeks’ notice before a family came to them. But after the fall of Afghanistan, agencies like New American Pathways and Catholic Relief Services were getting about 50 people a week — or ten families — with only 48 hours of notification.
This is when the AAAG came in to help. According to Sherry Ebrahimi, an AAAG board member, the group’s main goals in the summer of 2020 were to help refugees with basic needs. This included getting in-kind donations from people in the Atlanta area, like furniture, bedding, cookware, sewing machines, clothes, shoes, and toys.
Bicycles are crucial, according to Ebrahimi. “One thing AAAG has done is give people bikes with [a] partnership through Global Spokes,” she explained. Global Spokes is a nonprofit organization that donates bicycles to those in need in the Atlanta community and “makes sure bikes are safe, and people have helmets. This is one of the big points that has helped people be successful right away [in the U.S.] because it takes a while to get a license and save money for a car,” said Ebrahimi.
When families first arrive, Nassery said, many of their needs are simple. She recalls visiting a family with nine children. When she helped them connect a cellphone to Wi-Fi, they all cheered.
“The baby was wearing an outfit that was made out of a hotel towel. The mom was saying ‘can you get me a sewing kit so I can sew them some clothes,’” Nassery remembers. The children all needed shoes. “I thought this was crazy, they came with nothing. I was sitting there like ‘Oh my god,’ there’s so much stuff they need and it would be so easy to provide all of this. This is just easy stuff. They aren’t asking me ‘hey, can you do my immigration paperwork.’ And that’s one of the things that is so exciting about this work, is that you can make a difference by just hooking them up to their Wi-Fi.”
While AAAG initially focused on these basic needs, now, with fewer Afghan refugees coming into the U.S., the organization is shifting its goals, said Ebrahimi.
“The new focus is on families who have been here, making sure they have the right English classes, trying to get people to get better jobs more in line with their skill level,” she said. She mentioned a man who worked at an Emory University parking office when he first moved to Atlanta even though he had earned a master’s degree in Afghanistan. After eight months, she says, he was able to get a job at Accenture.
Nassery explained that AAAG is prioritizing mental health, integration into the community, and unity. The group holds community-building events like pumpkin painting and coffee meet-ups. These events, Ebrahimi and Nassery mentioned, always need volunteers.
AAAG is also following up with families it helped previously. Nassery recalls the family with the nine — now 10 — children. Nassery recalls asking the oldest daughter, who was 19, to write down the children’s shoe sizes.
“No no no,” the girl said, and she pulled her scarf down.
The girl told Nassery that she was illiterate.
“And my heart fell, because I had just put her in such an awkward position because I made an assumption,” Nassery said. “And I was just so angry at that moment and I thought ‘How is she going to make it here?’ And then I come to find out the whole family, including the parents, are illiterate.”
The family was from a very rural part of Afghanistan, Nassery explained, “where there had been fighting for so long the schools weren’t even in session.” She added that although the boys had gone to school, “They would just recite the Quran, the holy book, all day. They do not know how to read or write.”
Now, Nassery said, the children are in school, and the mother is learning to read and write and taking English classes. “Their path is still really hard, but they were so resilient, and they’re doing as well as they can. The process is working.”