Adventures in Volunteering III: Driving Afghan Refugees

When I first started volunteering with the Refugee Settlement division of Catholic Charities, one of the things I did was get set up as a driver. The fellow who tries to supervise me is a young man from Chile, and he doesn’t have a license, so he asked me to do this so I could drive the “box truck” and deliver furniture and such to the refugee families.

I have driven the truck many times, and once was asked to use my car take a woman from Zambia to a job interview.  I did that, including stopping at the grocery store where she bought 4 cases of bottled water on the way back.  I think, coming from Zambia, perhaps she just isn’t comfortable with the idea of drinking tap water.  At any rate, I helped her carry them up the stairs to her apartment.  Thinking back on this, I decided that wasn’t the best use of my time—while I am sympathetic, what she really needed was a bus pass and information on how to use public transportation.  So I said I wouldn’t do that sort of driving anymore, just stick to the truck.

But on Sunday, I got a call asking if I could take a family from the suburb of Beaverton downtown to pick up bus passes.  Well, okay.  They are a young married couple with a boy about 2 or 3.  The man speaks English very well- he told me he had worked for the U.S. State Department in the Kabul embassy for several years. His wife speaks a little bit of English. He was wearing western clothes, while his wife was in a robe with a head covering.  They have been in the U.S. for about two months- first in New Jersey, then to Portland, where they hope to settle. They are currently in one of those long-term rental motels, which has a kitchenette.

The man quickly set up a car seat for the youngster, and then apologized and said he needed to make a call, which he did, speaking English, while his wife was on her cell phone, speaking Dari.  It was a cacophonous ride downtown. We went into the Trimet office. (Trimet is our bus and train company.)  There a pleasant but determined woman told them that she could not issue a bus pass because they didn’t have their passports with them- just photos of the passports on their cell phones. No amount of reasoning would budget her, so back we went to Beaverton, got the passports, and returned downtown. After returning with the bus passes I gave them a handout on how to use Google Maps to find public transportation routes.

Now here is the hard part.  The reason both of them immediately got on their phone is this. The husband was talking about getting some care for his wife, and the wife was talking to her mother in Kabul. The sobbing speech of someone in grief is recognizable in any language.  The day before, Sunday, they had learned that her sister had been killed in Kabul. The man explained that his sister-in-law had also worked for the U.S. government, but did not get out.  On Sunday, she was driving to the home of a family member and, while stopped at an intersection, a Taliban truck came up and started shooting.  She threw herself on top of her children, absorbing the bullets with her body. The children were not struck, but no one can say they were unharmed.

I’ve been thinking about them since that trip downtown.  After “I’m sorry” and “That is terrible” I had nothing to say, and I can think of nothing to do.  We mostly rode in silence after the telephone calls were finished.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Volunteering III: Driving Afghan Refugees”

  1. Tony,

    Thank you for this recounting of this event. We knew this would happen when the US left Afghanistan, and the pain is still visited on those who were able to leave.

    Tony O.

  2. Great piece — I would have felt aggravation (saying to myself “why are they on their phones? This is a chance to connect!”) and then the “oh no no no.” You are learning and using what you learn to be even better at assisting. Go, Tony!

  3. The world is cruel on many levels, but then there are people like Tony Greiner who intercede in some fashion. Maybe it’s driving a car or van, maybe it’s offering condolences to people who are grieving while thousands of miles away from their homes and families. Your story is sad. I wish it wasn’t. Thank you for volunteering your time and offering your heartfelt sympathies to that family.

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