LOWELL — Scarcely any of the 40 Afghans who trooped off planes at the Manchester, N.H., airport on an unseasonably warm day on Nov. 18, 2021, had ever heard of Lowell.
Among the dazed and weary refugees at the airport was an irrepressibly optimistic former US military interpreter called Noori. His wife, Samya, and two young daughters, Taqwa and Zahra, were at his side. They were exhausted, but they were safe.
Noori recalled that he didn’t know a single person in New England. He didn’t have a job. Or a car. Or an apartment. Or a winter coat. But he had his family.
And here he was, finally in America. Outside the doors of the airport lay the land of prosperity and opportunity, and the big, fast cars from the American movies of his youth.
For about a decade Noori, 33, had worked, first alongside US Marines in the hills of Helmand Province and then in classrooms teaching English, to make his country more like that shimmering vision of America. But in Afghanistan at least, that vision melted away as soon as the United States withdrew its forces a year ago.
After a harrowing escape and a grueling journey halfway around the world, Noori and his fellow Afghans quickly found that life in Lowell is no Hollywood movie.
“We thought that in America all the facilities of life were going to be provided for you,” he said. “It’s true that it has, if you work [for it].”
Noori and several hundred other Afghan refugees who have been resettled in Lowell have set about doing what they could not in their own country.
They’re building lives in peace while forging a united community that is, slowly, bridging the divides of language and creed that have riven Afghanistan for decades.
“The United States of America did not build a nation in Afghanistan, and now the Afghans who are here are trying to build a new nation here in the United States,” said Jeff Thielman, president of the International Institute of New England, which resettled many of the Afghans.
And in the past year, Noori has gone from being just another Afghan in the crowd to a community leader, always eager to help his compatriots even as he navigates his own obstacles in the new country he’s proud to now call home.
For three days, Noori had been in hiding. The Taliban had swept into Jalalabad, where Noori and his family lived on Aug. 15, 2021, hours before the militant Islamist group took Kabul, the capital.
Everyone in town knew he worked for the Americans.
“The Taliban believe … interpreters were the eye, hand, and ear of American forces,” Noori said. “I’m 99 to 100 percent sure that I would’ve been killed.”
Noori requested the Globe only use his last name, a common one in Afghanistan, to protect relatives who remain in the country from Taliban retribution.
Out of the blue on Aug. 17, a Marine whom Noori had worked with messaged him contact information for his former commanding officer, Major Josh White, to help Noori escape. White, a career military man from rural Missouri, was taking a class at the Marine base in Quantico, Va., when he got a call from Noori. White told him he would try to help.
“Very early on, I realized the option to not do anything was not an option,” White said. “That’s my duty as a Christian to do what I can.”
White said he realized Noori and his family needed to get to the Kabul airport as soon as possible.
To travel from Jalalabad to Kabul, Noori said, he pretended to be a backup driver in a vegetable delivery truck to get past the Taliban checkpoints. Meanwhile, White connected with other veterans through social media and managed to locate an Air Force major at the Kabul airport.
White recalled staying up all night hunched over his computer, instructing Noori to go from one chaotic airport gate to another to rendezvous with the Air Force major.
“Thousands of people were pushing each other to get … inside the airport,” Noori recalled. “There was no way that I should get in.”
The Air Force major told White to have Noori find a large piece of white paper, write “JOSH WHITE” on it, and stand in front of the airport canal at 10 a.m. the next day.
The next morning, Noori counted the minutes as he stood on a rock among the throng, holding the sign aloft. Ten minutes went by, then 12.
Back in Virginia it was around 2 a.m., and White too was counting the minutes.
“It was just dead silence, and all these thoughts are going through my head,” White said. “Finally, I get a text from the Air Force major and he’s like, ‘We got him.’ ”
Hours later, the family was on a plane to Qatar.
Noori’s mouth was dry, and his hands were sweaty as he gripped the steering wheel of an RMV car in Wilmington. His parallel parking was sloppy, his three-point turn had a few too many points, and Noori knew he was close to failing his road test a second time.
“I was very surprised when he told me I passed,” said Noori, who described the scene, with a laugh.
Getting his license at the end of March was a huge relief. It felt like a hard-earned victory after the family’s first few months in Lowell, which had been difficult at times.
Noori was lucky that the Lowell Community Health Center hired him days after he arrived as a Dari and Pashto language interpreter for their influx of new Afghan patients. But rent, Wi-Fi, and heat were expensive. They also desperately missed their families back in Afghanistan.
“Whenever I’m talking to my mom, she was crying because we are away from her, so this is the hardest part,” Samya said, with her husband interpreting from Pashto.
Samya, 23, and Noori’s fathers are out of work and their families struggle to find enough to eat amid Afghanistan’s worsening humanitarian crisis. Noori sends back $200 to $400 a month.
Worse still, as Noori would acknowledge many months later, the family was feeling trapped and helpless in a tiny apartment.
Fortunately for Noori and the other 275 refugees who eventually settled in Lowell, there was a group of Afghans who had arrived in the area years earlier and who offered support and guidance. The group’s de facto leader, named Mohammad Bilal, is another former military interpreter, who arrived in 2014.
Among the first things Bilal and the others did was establish a WhatsApp group for the new arrivals.
“We will just call to the community if there is someone available, just please help this family. … They were going to get [the refugees] food, they were there to get them to the hospital,” Bilal said. “Whatever their need was, we were helping them.”
Noori had an extra advantage: Major White, and his entire family, was still looking out for him. White knew Noori needed a car, so he set up a GoFundMe page that raised $14,000 and bought Noori a used Ford Focus.
The car arrived about a month after Noori passed his driver’s test last spring. He was overjoyed.
In May, on the maiden drive from his apartment on Liberty Street to the local Market Basket, Noori’s exuberance was tempered only by his cautious driving.
He slowed to a halt at stop signs. “One, two, three,” he would count out loud before gently accelerating.
“Before, I wasn’t feeling that much like I am in America,” he said. “But since I got a car and since I’ve been moving around the city, I noticed that I am.”
On a sunny day in May, a middle-aged Afghan man with the veiny hands of a workman told Noori in the Dari language that he was having trouble breathing through his nose. Noori leaned against some of the cabinets in an exam room at the Metta Health Center, the refugee clinic at the Lowell Community Health Center, and turned to translate for Dr. Rob Marlin.
“Did you ever break your nose?” Marlin asked the Afghan. Noori translated back into Dari. The man took a second. “Yes,” 24 years ago, he told Noori.
Marlin wheeled his swivel chair over to the man and shone a small flashlight up his nose. It was indeed blocked. The doctor referred him to a specialist.
Metta, originally founded in 2000 to serve the Southeast Asian refugee population that started arriving in Lowell in the 1980s, now serves about 300 Afghan patients, according to Marlin.
By May, doing checkups with every new Afghan, Marlin and Noori were the clinic’s dynamic duo. Marlin brings the medical knowledge and Noori the linguistic and cultural savoir-faire.
Each patient reveals aspects of Afghan life in Lowell.
Many of the Afghans don’t speak English and have found physical, unskilled work. On the day a reporter visited, a middle-aged man with hands irritated by all the cardboard at his warehouse job was prescribed lotion and advised to wear gloves.
Marlin and Noori vaccinated several other patients and handed out stomach pills, as many of their patients have long-unaddressed health issues and are still adjusting to American food.
Before one checkup, Noori pointed out to Marlin that a man’s name indicated he is a member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group. That prompted Marlin to probe deeper about the man’s roommates and whether he feels safe.
“He will often find out something that I didn’t ask about, that I hadn’t thought about,” Marlin said.
Just like he was for the Afghan villagers and the American Marines in Helmand, Noori is once again a bridge. After Noori set up one man with a dentist, the man placed his hand over his heart and bowed. “Thank you,” he said.
Noori swung the cricket bat, and a crisp “thwack” rang out as the ball soared over the fielders’ heads. Twenty Afghan men were arrayed around the pair of wickets on Lowell’s grassy Regatta Festival Field, across from the gray waters of the Merrimack River on an overcast day in early fall. Twenty more Afghans sat in the grass nearby, talking.
The WhatsApp group messages of a lonely first winter had blossomed into a season of weekend cricket matches.
Samya and the other women have found community, too, though perhaps slower than the men, watching their children at the South Common Park playground and at the mosque in Chelmsford.
Samya gave birth to a son they named Abubakar at the end of July and the two girls are, as Noori likes to say as he chases them around the apartment, “naughty” as ever.
Noori also spends a lot of time thinking about the family’s future. Taqwa, 4, and Zahra, 3, will start school next year, and the family will have to decide how to raise daughters in line with their devout faith while also assimilating to American culture.
“I don’t want them to be too free. I don’t want them to be too much under control,” Samya said. “Just 50-50.”
Problems remain for the community, though. Noori and others who directly served with US forces during the Afghan war are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa, but about two-thirds of the others are nervously awaiting asylum cases because they aren’t eligible for SIV, said Caroline Rowe, the Lowell managing director for International Institute of New England.
And some tensions, reflecting historic divisions in Afghanistan, linger between Dari and Pashto speakers, Rowe said.
But those are fading, Noori said. He points to his neighbors in his apartment building.
They’re from a rival province back in Afghanistan, but Noori drives them all over Lowell whenever they need a lift, and Samya is fast friends with the mother.
“Here, no one cares about those differences,” Noori said. “Everyone thinks the same: that we’re all Afghans.”
Alexander Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org