PROVIDENCE — A small group of Afghan families living in Rhode Island met Wednesday to prepare to welcome the Afghan evacuees that are expected to arrive here soon.
They said they know all too well what it’s like to be plucked from the place where you’ve lived your whole life and plopped down in the middle of a new, unfamiliar land.
“You are working for 30 or 40 years, you have a house, and the next day you have nothing – just the dress you have on,” a Saddiqa Alizada, a Warwick resident who arrived from Afghanistan five years ago.
So, they said, they will do all they can to make the new arrivals feel at home when they touch down in Rhode Island.
Alizada knows the first thing she will give those families: “A warm hug,” she said, smiling. “If we can do nothing else, we want to give them a warm hug.”
Last week, Governor Daniel J. McKee wrote to President Joe Biden, saying, “Rhode Island stands ready to welcome Afghan allies and families eager to seek solace and safety in our state — a state that was settled by refugees.”
Since then, Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s main refugee resettlement agency, and Catholic Social Services have told the federal government that they are interested in resettling a maximum of 200 to 250 Afghans in Rhode Island through their national counterparts.
On Wednesday, Afghans who moved to Rhode Island within the past six years gathered at the Refugee Dream Center in Providence to talk about how to help relatives who remain in Afghanistan and how to welcome recent evacuees.
Omar Bah, founder and executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, told the group that it’s unclear exactly when more Afghans might arrive in Rhode Island, but it could be in a month or so.
Bah said he knows of just four Afghan families that have moved to Rhode Island in recent years. “It is a small Afghan community,” he said. “But that is going to change soon.”
Six Afghan adults and three of their children gathered Wednesday, talking about providing the new arrivals with basic necessities such as food.
Here in the land of Rhode Island-style calamari and New York System hot wieners, they said they plan to cook up some qabuli pulao – a mixture of rice, beef or lamb, raisins, and sliced carrots that’s considered Afghanistan’s national dish.
The Afghan families said they did not know anyone who is expected to arrive in Rhode Island. But they said they are very worried about relatives who remain in Afghanistan, and they hope their loved ones will find a way to make it out soon.
Masuma Ishaq Ali said two of her brothers-in-law remain in Kabul. One worked with the US Army and the other worked with a human rights organization, but neither was able to get out of the country before Monday, when the last US forces left Afghanistan, ending a 20-year occupation that began shortly after the al-Qaida attacks on the US on 9/11.
She said her mother-in-law and one of her brothers-in-law tried to get out of Afghanistan via Pakistan, but the border was closed.
Ali said she is extremely worried about them because the Taliban is targeting anyone who helped the United States, and to make matters worse, one brother-in-law has a 9-month-old son who needs surgery.
“The doctor says he needs surgery this month or he may not be able to talk,” she said, showing a photo of the boy on her iPhone.
Ali, a Providence resident, said she came to the United States three-and-a-half years ago, after leaving Afghanistan and spending two-and-a-half years in Pakistan.
At times, living in the United States has been a struggle for her family.
Soon after she first arrived, a man spit at her as she stood at a bus stop wearing a hijab, Ali said. And her oldest daughter was subjected to bullying at her middle school, she said.
But Ali said she appreciates the opportunity and the diversity that the United States offers. “If you try, you can get anything – jobs, education,” she said. “There are a lot of different types of people in the United States, and a lot of loving people.”
Sisters Negina and Madina Sadat said the Taliban killed their father, and their mother died soon after they moved to the United States nearly six years ago. They said their aunt is still in Kabul.
“Right now, she is OK, but she wants to come here,” Negina Sadat said. “She is very worried.”
“Nobody is safe over there,” Madina Sadat said.
They said they talk to their aunt in Afghanistan every day. Bah – who came to Providence as a refugee from The Gambia, where was jailed and beaten for his work as a journalist – warned them not to use social media to communicate. “My experience with dictatorships is that they will monitor social media,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have vowed to respect women’s rights and forgive those who fought them, aiming to reassure world powers and a fearful population.
But the sisters aren’t buying it.
“They are just pretending to be different,” Negina Sadat said. “But they are the same. It’s the same thing.”
Atefeh Jalali, who came to Providence from Afghanistan five years ago, said she plans to meet those who have been evacuated from Afghanistan at the airport in Warwick.
“I’m sad for my country,” she said. “But I’m happy for the people coming here.”
The Afghan community in Rhode Island might be small. But, Madina Sadat said, “We are like a family over here.”