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Nonprofit helps Afghan refugees establish new lives in Hampton Roads

By Penny Kmitt,


The next month marks two years since American troops left Afghanistan, leading to the Taliban's takeover and severe human rights violations against women and girls. As Afghan women continue fleeing to the United States, one Hampton Roads organization is helping them make new lives for themselves.

"I wanted to work for myself, by myself, and make my dreams come true," said Nazira Muhammadi, an 18-year-old Afghan refugee who now lives in Williamsburg.

Nazira grew up with dreams of becoming an artist and poet, but in April 2021, that all came to a halt when President Biden announced he was pulling American troops out of Afghanistan.

And Nazira knew she had to leave.

"A woman cannot go to school, they cannot work," she said. "I was fighting for my future and I couldn't just let it go."

So at just 17 years old, Nazira said goodbye to her family and set her sites on freedom, heading to the local airport. There, she was met with Taliban guards who were shooting at the floor and the ceiling, instilling fear in people like Nazira.

"I didn't even have a phone charger," said Nazira.

When asked if she had anything more than a backpack, she responded, "No. I didn't have any other clothes even."

Eventually, after going face-to-face with Taliban guards, Nazira earned herself a spot on a one-way flight out of Afghanistan and toward Qatar. The flight, she says, was packed to the brim with people desperate to flee the Taliban's rule.

"There were lots of people," she said. "There were not enough seats. People were pushing. They were so much uncomfortable... The babies were crying."

Nazira then spent weeks alone in a refugee camp as she waited for her flight to the United States.

"I never thought that [I was] gonna live by myself and I was nervous because I've never been anywhere without my family," she said. "I cried the whole night."

Eventually, Nazira boarded a flight to Philadelphia. Being a minor, she was bussed to a group housing facility in Michigan. Then, through Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Nazira found her way to Hampton Roads.

"I was just waiting for, what's gonna happen to me?" she said. "Or, where am I gonna go? I had nobody in the United States."

And that's where Hampton Roads Refugee Relief (HR3) comes in.

While Commonwealth Catholic Charities helped arrange Nazira's arrival in Newport News, the organization can only provide financial assistance for about three months. That's when HR3 steps in.

"We saw the need. And we said, 'You know what? We have to do something about it,'" said Dr. Rabia Jafri, the founder of HR3. "This takes much longer than three months. We still have people who need assistance after the two years being here because it's not easy to go to a different country and settle down."

Women-founded and primarily women-led, HR3 is helping refugees like Nazira build new lives for themselves in Hampton Roads.

Dr. Jafri and her board work tirelessly to provide refugees with driving lessons, English language courses, Medicaid application assistance, and most importantly, a sense of belonging.

"We are not funded by the government," said Dr. Jafri. "Whatever we raise, we raise. We are very small."

HR3 has just one paid part-time employee, Executive Director Kim Barbarji. She says building a sense of community for refugees is the most important part of their work.

"We have, for example, an ESL class that's women's only because we really want to make sure that they have that ability to create community," she explained. "What they need most from us is the warmest welcome we can offer. We need them to know that they have a safe space here. "When they arrive here, it can be a very isolating experience. There is the newness and the sense of freedom and excitement that comes with any new arrival. But my God, they've been through so much. They've been through incredible, unimaginable trauma in many cases."

The organization builds this community through sports, picnics, classes, and other activities.

Nazira says she finally feels like she's not alone.

"They're getting together people who have the same kind of stories and they've been through the same things," Nazira explained. "I do feel like I have a community here, actually."

Since working with HR3, Nazira has earned her degree from Burton High School and now works at Aromas Coffeehouse in Williamsburg. Nazira says she loves her job, something she never would have been able to have had she stayed in her home country. She also recently rediscovered her love for art.

"My goal is now to show the world that Afghan women, they matter," said Nazira. "They matter."

Meanwhile, HR3 has also been able to work internationally, pulling strings to ensure Nazira's family made it out of Afghanistan. While they're not here in the United States, Nazira says she finds comfort in knowing that they are safe from persecution.

"I think the power of women is incredible, right?" asked Barbarji. "When we come together around a cause, we can move mountains."

If you would like to help in HR3's important work, you can donate or volunteer through their website .

Commonwealth Catholic Charities is also always looking for foster families to house refugees. You can learn more about the nonprofit's mission here .

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