GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Afghan families in Grand Rapids are coming together with their new neighbors after fleeing the only home they’ve ever known.
An event Friday night in southeast Grand Rapids connected refugees with longtime members of the community.
For the families who have been away from Afghanistan for so long, the night brought a taste of their culture, with traditional food, music, games and dancing.
Freshta Tori Jan, the Afghan Community Health Advocate for the nonprofit Treetops Collective, organized the special night. Her own family evacuated Afghanistan last year.
“I want the Afghan community to feel they belong here,” she said. “They may have lost their birthland, but this is a new beginning.”
When the U.S. pulled troops out of Afghanistan last year, leaving the Taliban to take over, Afghans fled for their lives and came here to start over.
News 8 talked with several Afghan refugees, including a young girl.
“(I hope) that Afghanistan can be war-free one day,” she said through a translator. “(I’m) tired of the violence. Now that (I’m) here for the community…. (I want) to be so much closer to them and (I want) to help. (I’m) ready to be a member of their communities.”
Tori Jan estimates there are 400 Afghan families in Grand Rapids.
“They’re experiencing a lot of hardships,” Tori Jan said. “The language barrier, getting introduced to a whole new culture and a way of life.”
She said many are still struggling to find work, despite having master’s degrees or years of experience with the U.S. Embassy.
“Now that they’re here, even the ones who speak very well in English, they’re not able to find jobs,” she said. “They’re continuously being pushed to start at factory level jobs.”
When a refugee from Kabul moved here, he couldn’t believe how peaceful life is.
“Every day (I) woke up,” the man said via a translator. “So much peace and quiet. Something (I) hadn’t experienced much at home.”
He used to work with Americans back in Afghanistan, selling American flags. When the Taliban came, he had to leave his company and his business.
Maria Popal, another Afghan refugee, brought her family here for a better future as many feared for their lives back home.
“Just everybody, they tried to be inside the house, not going outside because of bad situation,” Popal said. “They afraid maybe something happen to them.”
Christy Carlin-Knetsch, who has lived in Grand Rapids for 20 years, was in contact with an Afghan family through her church as she tried to escape last August.
“We didn’t know if they were gonna make it out,” Carlin-Knetsch said. “It was four days of just all day all night waiting and hoping and praying.”
The U.S. military evacuated the family, who came to Grand Rapids.
“They moved right down the street from our house,” Carlin-Knetsch said. “Our kids are going to the same school. “They have to reacclimate to new money systems and new ways of how school is structured, and it’s been such a beautiful exchange and opportunity for us to learn what it means to be a new neighbor.”
For a ten-year-old boy, he hopes to return home one day.
“I wish for Afghanistan to redevelop, and I hope that we can find an amazing house,” he said.
Tori Jan said this celebration of Afghan culture is one of many to come. They’re looking to have women’s nights and henna socials in the months to come.
“One of the things that has been a struggle is that human connection,” Tori Jan added. “So many of these refugees are desperate to form those relationships.
“If you can take them out for a coffee or even just go to their house, knock on their door, be like, ‘how are you? Let me introduce you to the city!’”