Afghans, New To The U.S., Go From War Zone To COVID-19 Hot Zone

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 8:15 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now let's hear from some relative newcomers to the United States who are playing a role in fighting the coronavirus. These are Afghans who worked with U.S. troops back home and ended up resettling with their families and communities near New York City. So they've gone from a war zone to a coronavirus hot zone, and they are stepping up again. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Fareed Popal's English skills got him a job as a translator with the U.S. military for more than a decade. Resettled here two years ago, he's had to learn some new skills, like Zoom calls.

FAREED POPAL: Oh, there we go. We made it.

AMOS: Now he works in the operating room of a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He's on the front lines again.

POPAL: I'm working as a patient care technician. The nurses and the doctors, they are facing with shortages of masks. So that's a little challenging time.

AMOS: While he's in the hospital, his wife, Waheeda, is part of a mask-making project. Many of the resettled Afghan families in New York are doing the same.

FARDEEN GHAFOR: This is Mahnaz.

MAHNAZ GHAFOR: Hello.

F GHAFOR: And I'm Fardeen.

AMOS: For more than a decade, Fardeen Ghafor delivered fuel to a U.S. air base in Afghanistan. He resettled in the U.S. in 2017. He says he's proud of his wife, Mahnaz, for joining a community mask-making project in their New York suburbs. Mahnaz sews 50 masks a day.

F GHAFOR: It will save lives, so that's the happiness that we feel. And now is the time that we can do something.

AMOS: As COVID-19 surges in New York, the mask project turns out about a thousand masks a week, says Holly Rosen Fink, who works with a refugee support group. She delivers donated cloth and elastic - even filters to the skilled seamstresses in this group - for high-quality masks desperately needed in area hospitals.

HOLLY ROSEN FINK: They also go to rehab facilities, retirement communities, even food pantries.

AMOS: The COVID-19 emergency has changed everything about refugee resettlement, especially for the newest arrivals who came directly from war zones to a health crisis in their new home. A few of the Afghan newcomers have tested positive for COVID-19. After disregarding the lockdown and the social distancing, now they understand the danger.

MARK HETFIELD: Refugees are inherently risk-takers, but they're also inherently survivors.

AMOS: That's Mark Hetfield, head of HIAS, a refugee resettlement organization.

HETFIELD: They know the value of their own lives. They are grateful that they were able to leave their country with their life, and so they do follow those protocols.

F GHAFOR: This is different. This is scary.

AMOS: Fardeen Ghafor faced danger every day delivering fuel in Afghanistan. He saw people die in front of him from suicide bombers and roadside attacks. When his brother arrived for resettlement here in February, he explained that the coronavirus is the new enemy, and he urged him to follow the lockdowns and the social distancing.

F GHAFOR: With this situation, you don't know from where the enemy is coming. You can touch your door and then you can get sick. I wash my hands maybe more than what I did in my whole life.

AMOS: And he tells his brother to do the same.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.