GREEN BAY– When Aliakbar Gholami first learned of the Taliban's capture of Kabul, Afghanistan, which led to their taking over the country, he was working his shift at the airport like any other day.
Gholami faced an impossible decision: Stay with family and risk capture and even death, or flee the country. He and his colleagues heard the crackle of military gunfire and understood quickly that the Taliban was shooting at them. In that moment, the choice was made for him.
Gholami was one of about 122,000 people evacuated from Kabul as of Aug. 30 as the U.S. ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan, leaving the country in the control of the Taliban.
It would be three days until he was able to return calls or texts to his family, only after one of NATO's planes flew him, his fellow staff and passengers to safe passage in Qatar.
After lingering in airports in Germany and moving from refugee camps in Philadelphia and New Mexico, Gholami came to Green Bay two months ago. The Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay helped him get an apartment, roommates, food and, in early December, a job at the JBS Green Bay meat-processing plant.
For the Afghan refugees resettling in the United States, Gholami's story of escape under cover of U.S. agencies is not unique. But for those arriving to Green Bay, Catholic Charities is supplying Afghan refugees a fresh start and overcoming obstacles to ensure safety and support for the war-torn arrivals.
Catholic Charities on Friday marked the arrival of its 100th Afghan refugee to Green Bay, a milestone that program leaders say illustrates its strength in uplifting new arrivals and showing them quality of life is not only possible, but obtainable.
About 125 refugees are expected to resettle in the Green Bay area by mid-February. About 13,000 evacuees were sent to Fort McCoy, where they were housed and cared for before resettlement. Fewer than 8,000 remained there as of December, and that number was expected to decrease as more people are resettled across the U.S.
'My country wasn't safe'
As they begin their journey in the United States, every refugee receives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops some money for rent, food and items not covered by donations
Sayed Wardak, 32, a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, emigrated to the United States with his wife in 2016. He couldn't speak about the violence he witnessed during that time, but up until a few years ago, the flashes of unspeakable trauma kept him frozen awake at night. Sleep was the only time he felt fear.
"My country wasn't safe. My hometown wasn't safe. As soon as I got my visa, I bought a ticket for myself and the same thing for my wife," Wardak said.
Wardak had a cousin in Green Bay, and he and his wife stayed with the cousin for 30 to 40 days until he got arguably the most apt Wisconsin job he could find: a gig at a cheese factory.
Since arriving, Wardak said, he and wife see Green Bay as home. They have two young children, a 2½-year-old and a 15-month-old. While he and his wife speak Pashtu at home, their children watch American TV and speak English. They're obsessed with the cartoon "Cocomelon."
After settling here, Wardak has devoted his free time to working with Catholic Charities, to ensure that other refugees aren't alone as they adjust to life here, where cultural and language barriers make integration difficult.
"When I heard (Afghan refugees) were coming to Green Bay, the main point was to see them, talk to them, show them how I started," Wardak said. "And that was not easy, to be honest with you. That was not easy."
Needs range from medical to emotional
Karmen Lemke, director of Catholic Charities, explained that when Afghan refugees first arrive, individuals and families have very specific medical needs. Sometimes refugees need physical attention, due to their extensive travels into and out of camps across the world, and sometimes, the violence they faced has been internalized.
"We begin the case assessment with what their needs are. As far as how we speak to that integrated care and working with them as a trauma-informed care agency, we really rely on our partners and then we also have programs through our own agency," Lemke said. "We have our own mental health program. We have financial health services. We have our Family and Children's Services. We have some services, but we certainly can't do it alone."
Wardak said that when new arrivals land in Green Bay, his team arranges to pick them up from the airport and take them to their temporary home. That's when Wardak takes over.
"When they see me, the first thing they say is, 'Thank God you're here,'" Wardak said. "They're thinking differently until they see someone who looks like me. When they see me, their faces change."
Wardak said that coming here, really going anywhere outside of Afghanistan, is dangerous for refugees. Many can't use their full names or else they risk the Taliban seeking them out.
This was the case for Abdullah, who wouldn't share his surname. He said the moment the Taliban learns your identity, you're no longer safe. Like Wardak, he came over with his wife. While everyone he's greeted is warm and welcoming, he worries for his brother, mother and father.
"There is no way to bring them here," Abdullah said. "I can see that my family is exposed to great threat but I cannot do anything. I cannot provide a safe place for them. It's very disappointing. I blame my own self for not getting them here."
The people who Abdullah worked for, what he described as a secret organization, promised that it would bring his family to the United States. That hasn't happened.
Still, from the moment Abdullah arrived in Green Bay, after experiencing nightmarish conditions at the camps in Germany and then the "very fancy" amenities of the U.S. Army hotel in Fort Lee, Virginia, he finally felt safe.
"From the moment I arrived, I was all in their hands," Abdullah said.
'I'm in a nice, safe place'
Alnilda Albizu, the case manager specialist for Catholic Charities, said she's learning firsthand the trauma people like Abdullah, Gholami and Wardak encountered.
"Everything we watch on the news … that happened at Kabul airport, I watched from somebody's cellphone," Albizu said. "It's quite a different feeling when you talk to somebody who was right there seeing everything happening."
When refugees began to arrive from Afghanistan in October, Albizu said, the transition to healing was cumbersome. Some of this, she said, had to do with the lack of counseling in their home country. Also, many Afghans use community to persevere in the face of violence, she said. Community, then, was a piecemeal process.
"There were just a couple people and they didn't have anybody else," Albizu said. "Then we have single males coming and I couldn't bring the women to interact with the men. The women were alone and very depressed."
By Christmastime, those same women were knocking on Wardak's door to sit and have dinner with his wife.
"They're sitting together. They're talking together. They're having dinner together," Albizu said. "They're finding the balance in their own community and building connections with other families."
Gholami, meanwhile, who came here alone, said people like Wardak and Catholic Charities made him feel at home and safe.
"They helped us with resettling, and this house, the job, new clothes … I'm in a nice, safe place," Gholami said.
He lives in a bachelor pad with four roommates, so despite being apart from his family, who must remain hidden, he doesn't feel alone.
"When I understood that the Catholic Charities treats us like this, I called my friends living at the New Mexico camp and told them, 'If you guys want to be in a good place, come to Green Bay,'" Gholami said.
As for Abdullah, he and his wife live in a two-bedroom apartment. They have two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, even a basement. The only thing he doesn't like is the cold, he said, looking out the window at the snowy terrain. But he looks forward to the summer when warmer outdoor activities open up.
And he's excited to finally have time to sit down and watch his first Green Bay Packers game.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Catholic Charities marks arrival of 100th Afghan refugee to Green Bay