The Last Open Gate
Shershah Wahidi and his family were among the very last Afghans to be evacuated from Kabul when the Taliban seized power in August 2021. His UN passport perhaps the only reason they made it through at all. He and his wife made the decision to leave at the urging of the UN office and had followed their instructions to a tee: Pack nothing, leave now, wait for a bus at a certain location—a bus that was meant to take them to a specific gate at the airport, a bus that never came.
At midnight, after having waited for several hours with four young children, Shershah and his wife called a taxi to return home. They had no plans to try again. It was the taxi driver who asked, “Where are you trying to go?” “The airport, but now we will go home,” Shershah answered. The driver said there was yet one gate still letting people through, would they like to try? Shershah turned to his wife. Had she said ‘no’, that would’ve been it, but she said, “let’s try” and so they did. The “angel taxi driver”, as Shershah calls him, dropped them at the last open gate. Around 2 a.m. a soldier reviewed their documents, opened the gate, and said, “You are good to go.”
Once inside, the Wahidi family joined hundreds of others waiting. It would be another 24 hours before they’d be invited to take a seat on the steel floor of a C-17 U.S. Air Force cargo plane and transported to Doha, Qatar. Shershah maintained his sense of humor—snapping a couple photos of his wife “asleep and slumped against strange men,” he laughs.
After landing in the early morning, the plane sat on the tarmac all day, broiling in the sun. The kids were anxious and the babies—including Shershah’s one-year-old—were taken to a special area and given oxygen. The passengers couldn’t be unloaded because the refugee camps were already at capacity—there were no accommodations available. Eventually temporary tents were put up next to the runway so they could breathe, eat, and use the washroom.
After a few hours, Shershah noticed a few military officials arrive and talk amongst themselves. “I told my wife ‘Let’s line up. Something is happening.’ Then a bus arrived and a lady came up with a list. They said, ‘Today is your lucky day. We are taking you to a flight where it's going to States directly.’” The companies and governments of the world had conspired and sent four chartered flights to carry the people onward in their long journeys of resettlement.
That’s how on August 19th, 2021, the Wahidi family arrived at Washington-Dulles International Airport with just each other and the clothes on their backs. Though he’d traveled to more than 13 countries during his long humanitarian career with the UN’s World Food Program, Shershah had never been to the United States. Now it was home.
Even today, Shershah knows many other friends and relatives who remain in transit. His sister told him of the thousands of people still stuck in Doha, living under one tent for many months. Having worked with refugee populations all around the world, he also knows that millions of people are displaced and in transit for years before being resettled. All this considered, the family’s arrival at Dulles was something of a miracle.
They had no idea that even before they made it through the gate in Kabul, a team of Americans was preparing for their arrival.
A Garage Start-Up
At the height of the Syrian crisis in 2016, a couple-hundred volunteers working through National Community Church banded together to care for refugees being resettled in DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland. They formed teams to provide different aspects of care: long-term family friends, immediate basic needs, soccer teams and summer camp for kids, and ongoing support to the local resettlement agencies. This “Agency Team”—led by Laura Thompson Osuri—developed relationships with the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Lutheran Social Services, and International Rescue Committee, asking how they could best support their resettlement efforts. The answer was resounding: Set up apartments for arriving families.
The agencies were (and are still) stretched far beyond capacity and needed everything from procuring donations of household items to setting up bunk beds and stocking kitchens with adequate utensils. The team mobilized and soon were strapping couches and mattresses to their cars every other day, delivering to a small storage unit alternately packed to the seams and emptied by setter-uppers. Levan Kuck was one of those eager, early team members.
“I remember people's garages were the storage rooms. They wouldn't even be able to park their cars in their own garage because it was full of donated items. Hannah was notorious for that,” she laughs. Hannah Koilpillai was another early crewmember (and current board member) and Levan’s introduction to the effort.
The team back then was just a small core group—a scrappy dozen. Each person developed a knack and preference for a particular part of the setup — Nick and Laura tackled the assembly and building projects, like bunk beds. Lauren loves to make the beds just so and Levan would rewash all the dishes and load the kitchen cupboards and drawers. Others would lay out the living room with all the furniture and home goods: a rug, vase, couch, coffee table, lamps, pillows, and thoughtful toys for the kids. In a matter of hours, a bare apartment became the welcome no family ever thought they’d need.
After completing hundreds of set ups this way, it was time to take things to the next level. In 2019 Laura reorganized the Agency Team as a standalone nonprofit called Homes Not Borders. “At that time we were serving all three resettlement agencies and it just got to be a lot of work,” she says. “When I started, I remember being like, ‘I'm just going to be a volunteer. I'm not going to lead anything. I'm just going to help out.’ And so I did, and then the rest is history.”
“I just saw a need and that nobody's doing this. It’s like, ‘I can do this—we can do this. Let's do this.”
Laura Thompson Osuri, Executive Director, Homes Not Borders
In February 2020, Homes Not Borders hired its first two part-time employees—Laura as Executive Director and Nick as Program Manager. On the day they signed a lease and moved into their warehouse space Nick filmed the unlikely celebration moment—Hannah pulling her car into her garage for the first time in four years.
Besides setups, many of the volunteers have bonded with families and help them navigate life in the United States. For Levan, this opportunity came at the end of a setup one day when a neighbor—another newly resettled Afghan father—came out of his apartment and started chatting with the team. She remembers, “The gentleman asked if we could help. He told us his story about how his wife cries every night, every day, and how he couldn't sleep, and how he had two small children. One of them is disabled and I don't know, I guess my heart went out to them.” The challenges facing newly arrived families are many, and all of them urgent—learning the language, finding work, getting a bank account, going to the DMV—the basics and not-so-basics. “All that stuff is just such a big hurdle for them,” says Levan.
Hannah, too, had recently retired when she started volunteering for setups. After a 35-year career with the World Bank, she had come to a point health-wise where walking to the mailbox was a difficult daily triumph. She knew she needed to slow down and address her health issues. Yet after just a couple of months on the setup crew, a relative remarked on her brightened strength and energy. “She said, ‘You are healing from the inside, because of the joy.’"
Hannah beams, “Every day, I am so excited looking forward to the next setup, and the next setup, and what can I do? And how can I change? I can do more than this.” She and Levan embody the joyful determination of all Homes Not Borders volunteers, many of whom help with multiple aspects of the work: donation pick-ups, drop-offs to families in need, setups, warehouse organizing. With families arriving every week, warm welcomes remain a need.
Journey to a New Home
On the plane from Afghanistan, Shershah made a list of the things he left behind: a four-story house with twelve rooms that he spent five years building, a three-bedroom apartment downtown, a big SUV for his family. His income was among the highest in the country, matching that of a government minister. Shershah speaks four languages and taught his children English. His wife earned her bachelor’s degree. Though he’d never desired to leave Afghanistan, he had experienced the impact of the Taliban’s rule on education for girls when from 1997-2001 his sister was banned from attending school. “Five years she did not study,” he says. “My parents tried to teach her. And when the schools reopened, she started to study and graduated with us again. But that's a difficult time for women. It's very difficult. And I knew what would happen during those two days of fallout.”
“I want my daughters to be educated because their future matters a lot to me. I have three daughters and they would be at big risk this day in Afghanistan.”
After landing at Dulles, the Wahidi family was transferred to a military base in Dallas for processing, immunizations, and medical clearances—all of which took 35 days. At the advice of a friend who also worked in the humanitarian sector, Shershah wanted to get as close to Washington, DC as possible in hopes of continuing his career. His case was assigned to Lutheran Social Services (LSS), one of nine major resettlement agencies contracted by the U.S. government to help refugees and asylum-seekers access services and get on their feet. LSS procured a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland and reached out to Homes Not Borders for help setting it up.
Since its start, Homes Not Borders has received roughly a thousand calls like this one—a family of six arriving in two days, a family of 10 arriving tomorrow, a family of three needing special items, a family already settled but needing a crib. “There has never been a time when I’ve called them with a need and they’ve said no,” says Negena of International Rescue Committee. “Not once.” Over the past nine-months alone IRC has resettled 300 families—or 787 people, to be exact—and Homes Not Borders has completed many if not most of those home setups.
“That's why me and Nick work so well together. We were both probably to a fault, like, ‘Sure, we can do it. No problem. We can get this done. We'll figure it out,’” Laura says. “And people thought were nuts a lot of times. We're just — the more the challenges, the better.”
“Most of our clients come from very harmful situations,” says Ruben Chandrasekar, Executive Director of International Rescue Committee. “They've fled persecution and terror and have been forced to be displaced from their homes and have lived in very precarious conditions for years, sometimes decades. They have lost family members, friends—obviously, they've lost their countries—and they come to the U.S. hoping that they can rebuild a life and a home here.” Aside from a warm welcome at the airport, walking into their apartment is in most cases the family’s first sigh of relief in a very long time. IRC has been serving forcefully displaced people since 1933 and has mobilized thousands of volunteers for resettlement efforts over the decades. But with the waves of arrivals, a steady partner in Homes Not Borders has been immensely helpful. “Homes Not Borders has brought a level of coordination and professionalism that we can rely on consistently,” says Ruben.
Linda Goldman and Nancy Spoor have made sure the warehouses (they have two now) are ready for it. What was once a scrounge through Hannah’s and others’ garage collections is now a systematic shop through precisely packed aisles and shelves. In August and September 2021 donations of furniture, beds, mattress, home goods were pouring in from empathic donors all over the country wanting to help as news of the Afghan crisis brought the world to its knees. Delivery trucks were arriving multiple times a day, packed floor to ceiling, front to back, with donations for the families. Individuals would arrive also, hauling out all manner of items from their own homes—all of which were carefully reviewed and selected for highest-quality, culturally-tailored welcomes.
“Every contribution matters—except the dirty stuff,” says Linda. “Literally, we got a toaster oven with toast in it. Butter dish with butter in it. Rugs with pet hair on them.” These items would be screened out and never used in a home setup.
Rather Team Leads, like Levan, arrive early on setup days to review the inventory list for an incoming family and sticker all the items needing to be pulled for delivery. At 9:30 a.m. setup volunteers meet her at the warehouse and help collect and load all the items into the truck. Within the hour they will arrive to the apartment where additional volunteers are waiting to unload and begin the setup. Like Bill.
Bill Grant is one of the regular setup crew-members with a penchant for furniture assembly and heavy lifting. After a long career with the State Department, Bill is retired and happy to serve families he often worked alongside during his many assignments in the Middle East. “It's carrying furniture into the truck, getting it packed into the truck, then going to the apartment, carrying the furniture into the apartment, and helping to set it up. Sometimes it's a family of two, sometimes it's a family of seven or eight with kids,” he says.
Either way, by mid-afternoon (typically) the home is ready—beds are made, tea sets set, prayer mats neat, and toys waiting patiently for playmates.
Sometimes the team will even do a second and third setup in the same day. Then it’s all-hands-on-deck. Many times, folks even bring their kids to help. “What really touched me was Laura's daughter,” says Hannah. “Laura was carrying a sick child on one side and piece of furniture on the other and going up the steps to help set up an apartment. It just touched me. I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for these kids to see what their mother is doing.’”
The Heart is a Warehouse
Zohal Masodi was among the first Afghans to be evacuated from Kabul during the Taliban takeover. After many years of service at the U.S. Embassy she was granted a special immigration visa (SIV) to resettle in the U.S. and quickly found work with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led nonprofit that sends employees to crisis or disaster response situations. She was deployed to Homes Not Borders in May 2022 to provide backend logistical and coordination support to the organization. Of course, it’s a mission that hits close to home.
Entering the warehouse and seeing the stacks upon stacks of mattresses, linens, kitchenware, toys, backpacks, and school supplies lining the aisle, she thought, “These are all for people that need [it]. I felt so good that I'm working in service of people.”
If the passionate, dedicated staff and volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization, “the warehouse is the heart,” says Linda. Her first opportunity to volunteer came by storm. A mountain of donations had arrived and been piled outside the warehouse. Weather was on its way and Laura put out an S.O.S. to anyone and everyone who had previously expressed interest in volunteering. “Help!” the email said. “A big storm is on its way and we have only a few hours to move all this inside!”
Linda seized the opportunity. “I think there were probably 15 or 20 other people that day and we literally just dug through the pile and worked to get it into the warehouse and then tried to get it into some organized fashion. That was the beginning of the end.” She came back the next day, and the next. “I had met a woman, Nancy, who had been a long time Homes Not Borders volunteer, and we weren't anywhere near done. We nominated ourselves the warehouse managers and basically just started showing up every day and dealing with it.”
Within just a week or two, the team was setting up apartments for 8 to 10 families a week—a threefold increase. The coordination systems needed to keep pace. “That's the number one priority always—how do we get items to the families as quickly as we can?” says Linda. “We had to figure it out really fast.”
This is how the colored dot system started. The team had three families to setup for in one day and the volunteers needed an efficient way to pull relevant inventory and keep it all straight. The trash can list came out of this era as well—a way to pack all the toiletries and small items into a larger container and set one aside for each of the families—green, red, and blue. While many items are basic minimums mandated for resettlement by the State Department, Homes Not Borders pays special attention to the choices that make a house a home. It’s the little things like coordinated dish sets or the rug-couch-curtain, bedsheet-comforter combinations that really go above and beyond in terms of welcome and care.
"We're pulling now, packing for a family of eight," says Linda. “They have six daughters ranging in age from the early twenties to four. So, we think about that. We think about who they are and what they might like, down to what dish set are we going to give them? And the colors and patterns of the comforters that might be available. We try to think of something that's harmonious, that will feel welcoming and might resonate for them.”
Mary Knight, another warehouse volunteer, has her own signature contribution: “I spend a lot of time on books for kids. I like the idea of them learning about their new lives through books and stories, so I spend probably too much time there.”
There’s a flow and an art to it all. And a lot of colored stickers.
“I am not a Syrian. I'm not an Afghan. I'm not a refugee. It doesn't matter, what matters is we are human beings, and we should be there for each other.”
Hannah Koilpillai, Board Member, Homes Not Borders
My Soul is Table, Unlimited
“Working to welcome and resettle refugees is a very complex endeavor,” says Ruben. “It takes an entire community to do it.”
One family, Linda remembers, had been resettled in Centerville, Virginia after spending seven months in Turkey waiting for their visas to process. The father heard about Homes Not Borders and submitted a request through the website—they had no beds. Linda was able to ship him beds and bedding within just two days. “We got the most amazing thank you note,” Linda pauses. “He said, ‘This is the first time my kids have slept in a bed in seven months.’”
Hospitality is a tenet of every culture—a way of life and practice of honor throughout much of the world. Welcoming those seeking refuge, caring for the foreigner, and protecting the vulnerable are central tenants of all major faiths—described and decreed with remarkable consistency throughout respective scriptures. Crossing the threshold of nearly any home on any continent you might be offered water, tea, coffee, fresh juice, sweets, popcorn, or a meal—often an extravagant sacrifice. Generous offers are met by gracious appreciation—that’s the universal rhythm. This is one of the world’s most reliable, beautiful, and undercelebrated orchestrations—a symphony playing below the surface of mayhem and discord. A symphony practiced for millennia.
Someday the Homes Not Borders orchestra of volunteers might include repair services for appliances, or a woodworking shop, and furniture restoration. This would require much more space but might also create new employment opportunities for artisans and tradesmen to earn a living. Already Homes Not Borders employs several refugees as drivers for the donation pickup and setup teams. They are just beginning to sell small batch food items (hot pickled vegetables!) and textiles, like table runners and decorative pillows.
“I think it's so easy to read about what's happening today and feel so incredibly powerless,” says Linda. “And for me, it just came down to, like, ‘I can't fix that, but maybe I can help a few people have a slightly better start. Maybe, we can just make this massive life upheaval just a little bit easier or more comfortable.’ And so, that's the hope.”
“The need is still great,” says Bill. “It has nothing to do with politics at all. It has to do with people. Now we're starting to see Ukrainians come to the U.S. And there are other people who are not Afghan who Homes Not Borders serves. So just be aware, the need is constant.”
"There's going to be a surge and then there's going to be a drop, but there's going to be a constant need to help people with furniture, cash, or yourself."
Bill Grant, Vounteer, Homes Not Borders
“As imperfect as our country is, there's still much about it that's wonderful,” says Linda. “It's such an important reminder to just stop and look around and say, ‘All right, there is a lot here to celebrate, a lot here to be grateful for. There is a lot that we can do, especially if we come together.’ And to not take our democracy and our freedoms for granted, because we are seeing daily the very visible reminders of what happens in countries where those things are not available.”
For an organization on the front lines of resettlement, serving families with heart-wrenching journeys of loss and resilience, Laura and Homes Not Borders staff and volunteers are all impeccably clear-eyed and resolute about the mission. It’s a matter of celebrating human dignity and offering ourselves as ambassadors of home, American hospitality, and welcome. All it takes is a foot in the door.