Welcome Home! To Your New Home.

By Matt Lester

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On December 3rd, our New York/New Jersey chapter teamed up with Students for Refugees  and the Westchester Refugee Task Force to help a newly arrived Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipient Sam and his wife Ana* move into their new apartment in Queens.

Originally from Kabul, Sam spent seven years doing general security operations and executive protection for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. By helping the Americans, he put himself and his family in constant danger. When his situation became too unsafe, Sam knew that he could no longer stay in his home country. 

The Afghan SIV program is designed to help interpreters, translators, and contractors like Sam who served the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Applicants move through fourteen steps and rigorous vetting procedures. As of summer 2017, the average wait time for an SIV was 736 days. As a result, many applicants and their families wait in hiding and fear. Some are killed before they have a chance to escape.

When Sam and Ana were finally approved to travel to the United States in October, they were relieved, and grateful. Since Ana has family who live in Queens, the couple found a modest apartment in the eastern part of the borough. The two are expecting their first child.

A few weeks ago a friend and fellow veteran put me in touch with Mary Refling, lead organizer of the Westchester Refugee Task Force (WRTF) whose mission is to assist refugee families to become independent, self-sustaining members of the community.

A common misconception about refugees is that they receive government support every step of the way. While refugees do receive financial assistance upon arrival, nonprofits and resettlement groups do the heavy lifting—from finding a place to live and furnishing a home, to helping with language services and community integration.

Mary was familiar with Vets for American Ideals, our New York/New Jersey chapter, and our work with SIV recipients. She called and asked if we could help them welcome Sam and Ana. We jumped at the opportunity. Our volunteers: Myles Melnicoff, Atsuko Sakurai, and me (an Army veteran, a Coast Guard veteran, and a Marine, respectively). We share the common experience of military service, and we support Sam and other SIV recipients just as we would any fellow veteran.

So on a crisp Sunday morning, I rode the train to a small town outside New York City to pick up the U-Haul truck, joined later on by Students for Refugees (SFR). We made our way to Pleasantville, where we loaded up a couch donated by a rabbi. Community members also donated a kitchen table, a bed, and a dresser.

When we arrived in Queens we were greeted by Myles and Atsuko. Throughout the day, we worked together to ensure Sam and Ana were comfortable and settled in their new home.

Myles brought his wife and two kids along, including his newborn. The highlight of the day was watching Ana delight at the sight of the baby, her eyes filling with excitement for her own child’s future.

When we left that evening, I realized that despite having a nearby relative, Sam and Ana must feel very much alone. They are in a new country that today is often hostile toward refugees and immigrants. I thought about all that Sam and Ana must have been through in Afghanistan and about their journey to America. It was hard to walk away knowing they face an uncertain future.

But I’m grateful to have met them, and hope that Myles, Atsuko and I could remind him of something familiar: the Americans Sam served with and sacrificed for.

Thank you, Sam, and welcome.

*We have used different names to grant them privacy as they settle into their new country.

Matt Lester is a Marine Corps veteran and co-chair of the New York / New Jersey chapter of Veterans for American Ideals.