As people in Denver watch in horror as millions of refugees flee from war torn Ukraine to neighboring countries, we are reminded that less than a year ago thousands of refugees from Afghanistan were desperately trying to get out of that country and start new lives. Denver has welcomed over 1,000 Afghan refugees and will likely welcome more in the coming months.
“Americans have treated us very nice, like family, which means a lot to us.” said Yousof Kohistani.
Fear, distress, and brutal attacks on civilians forced cousins Waris Yousofi and Yousof Kohistani to flee Afghanistan for safety in Denver. They arrived in January 2022.
“We came to Colorado and to be honest, I haven’t faced any problems,” said Waris Yousofi. “We are thankful.”
On April 13, 2021, President Joe Biden announced that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Just a few short months after the announcement, in August 2021, the Taliban stormed through Afghanistan, taking control of several cities, including the capital of Kabul.
Waris and Yousof described the scene that began their journey to the U.S. They heard that they had been granted passports and had documentation that would allow them to leave. Upon arriving to the river front site where they would be transported, there was a crowd of people trying to escape. The crowd included people who had documentation and those who did not.
Through the pushing and shoving of the crowd the Americans helping with extraction said that only people who could prove their documentation would be able to come with them. During all the confusion, there was an explosion.
“Suddenly something happened. A bomb blast. I thought like it’s just a fire gun or something. We all fell down on the ground on the river,” said Yousofi. “When I woke up. Everywhere was the dust. I was okay. But then I saw people are crying. I asked what happened? The whole river was red.”
When Waris was able to find Yousof, his cousin was unable to get up because he had substantial injures to his leg and head, including shrapnel in his brain. Waris helped Yousof make it to the American transport vehicle and they both were able to make it out alive. They were transported to Qatar and then to a hospital in Germany where Yousof was given medical attention. He then received more care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It has taken Yousof months to recover, and he is now beginning to regain strength and is walking again. After, they were asked where they would like to go and chose Denver.
“We came here so we’ll stay here in Denver because our family ties here,” said Yousofi.
Waris said that in the U.S. he feels that it is much more peaceful and there is more diversity.
“Here, the thing is that it’s peace here. Everything is peace and diverse people, there is so much diversity. And people don’t have anything to do or to say to each other. Everyone has a free mindset.”
The Denver Rescue Mission is one of many organizations helping Afghan resettlement. Mike Merino, who is a retired software developer, has been involved with the DRM and has helped orchestrate the Family Refugee Services (FRS) and Family Rescue Ministry (FRM). Volunteers like Merino help to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with making such a life altering move. He helps to get children enrolled and transported to school, takes individuals to grocery stores, and provides the essentials to people beginning their lives in Denver. To make it easier, the Denver Rescue Mission also has a warehouse full of chairs, tables, TVs, and other assorted furniture that refugees can obtain.
“I’ve now worked with five families,” he said. “They all were middle to upper middle class. So for them, the goal is, I know where I was. I like that lifestyle. I want to get back to that lifestyle.”
Waris and Yousof both spent time in India getting their educations. Waris has a degree in international business and Yousof is three years into an IT degree.
“Both of us studied in India. He was there in India. I was also there. So basically, it’s not our first time that you’re getting out of our country,” said Waris. “We are aware of the foreign atmosphere environments and everything. But there are some other Afghans who came from more rural areas. Everything will be so shocking, and they will get lost.”
Many Afghan refugees that have made the more than 7,000-mile journey to Denver are eager to find work, get a drivers license, and develop some form of normalcy back into their daily lives. Some logistics make it harder to acclimate.
“One of the things they said to me was, in America, a car is like shoes,” said Merino. “They realized if you get a job, how are you going to get there? It was like a half mile away, that a long way when it is snowing.”
Waris and Yousof agreed that the biggest differences and the thing they will have to get used to the most is the number of rules and regulations. They have recently started driving lessons and expressed that they have a lot to learn with all the rules.
“Here, the traffic, like when you’re driving the car, you have to look at so many signs and there is so much on rules and regulation,” Yousofi said. “So, we joke with our friends that we can drive here, and they say that these rules are what makes America, America.”
When asked about doing essential tasks like going to the grocery store or going out to eat, Waris said that it is completely different in the U.S. and something that he will have to adjust to.
“Afghanistan is like another continent. And here, it’s another continent. Afghanistan is like a third-generation world, here It’s first generation,” said Waris Yousofi. “And groceries and all these other stores, basic things, essential things. These are like, very interesting to us because it’s like just normal, just going and doing everything, but Afghanistan it was different.”
Yousof and Waris feel like there are endless opportunites here in the states. Waris said that he hopes to one day create his own business.
“Here there are so many opportunites,” said Waris. “I want to like explore and see what the market is like, where people are, what it needs. And then after that slowly, slowly we’ll start our own.”
Gaining the material aspect of life in Denver is one of the priorities of refugees, but it is not the only part that is important.
“I would say all human beings want community. They were in a community; they knew who they were in that society,” said Merino. “That’s all been disrupted. They want to get back to all of that as soon as possible.”
Although, finding that sense of community takes time. Merino says that the best way to help these new Coloradans is by welcoming them into our community.
“The easy answer is we can welcome our neighbor,” he said. “They have needs, and one of the needs they have is to be appreciated.”
If you would like to help Waris and Yousof, you can donate to their GoFundMe here: https://gofund.me/2b1aca0c
If you are looking to get involved with refugee resettlement in general, you can visit: https://denverrescuemission.org/volunteer/