The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

–Leviticus 19.34

“Verily, with every difficulty there is relief. Verily, with every difficulty there is relief.

–Quaran, Surah al-Inshirah, 94:5-6

In February 2022, when support was needed to help displaced Afghans settle into the area, Pastor Keven Stout of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Boiling Springs prayed. He’d been asked if the church would sponsor one of the eighteen families. “The Bible,” says Pastor Kevin, “mentions foreigners, aliens and strangers 97 times. That’s a clear message.” The church’s community outreach committee was willing to help but felt a leader was needed to coordinate the effort outlined by the International Service Center (ISC) in Harrisburg. The process of resettling refugees included assisting the family find affordable housing, employment, health care, transportation, and education for six months. For twelve years, Pastor Kevin lived in Bangladesh, where Muslims comprise ninety percent of the population. He knew Arabic words, customs, holidays, and hospitality. With prayer and support from the congregation, Pastor Kevin took on the leadership role.

The family (their names have been changed to protect relatives living in Afghanistan) consisted of Amir, his wife Ayla, their young children Layla and Talha, and Amir’s parents Ali and Mariani. Ali, a retired Colonel, worked with the Intelligence Department in the Afghan Defense Ministry. Mariani retired from teaching ten years ago. Ayla graduated from law school in Kabul. Amir is an engineer by education and professional work experience. He is the only family member who speaks fluent English. He is the bridge that supports the family as they transition into their new lives.

The ISC was able to find an unfurnished townhouse in Carlisle. The family initially slept on the carpeted floor. When the landlord discovered how they were living, she sent a bed. The resettlement agency brought other furniture. Pastor Kevin recalls his first visit with the family. “I met them in early March 2022 at their apartment. A person from ICS was there to introduce them to me. I was struck by their Asian hospitality. I have many friends who are Muslim. One of my best friends in Bangladesh was Muslim; I was the best man at his wedding. That helped me feel at ease interacting with the family.

“We had tea and spoke about the U.S. and Afghanistan and how they got here. They were so polite and happy to be here.”

Amir is the youngest of Ali and Mariani’s five children. After completing high school, Amir received a scholarship to Kabul University, where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. He was employed in Afghanistan for less than a year with a private company, working on projects sponsored by the U.S. Corps of Engineering for the Afghan military. In September 2013, he spent two years in Europe to obtain his master’s degree in Engineering. Young Afghan citizens seeking advanced degrees were encouraged through scholarships to attend advanced programs in other countries. The new generation was becoming more educated than the previous ones. They would bridge the gap between the old and the new, bringing skills, technology, and new ideas back to Afghanistan.

In 2015 Amir returned to Kabul. For the next six years, he performed engineering-related work and project management on development and construction programs for the U.S. Agency of International Development, Germany, Harvard University, and the United Nations. By 2021, there were 18,000 contractors in Afghanistan, 4700 of them Afghans. Amir was one of those, working on projects for the Americans.

Ali, the family patriarch, says that an Afghan’s age should be counted two times: once in chronological years, then again for the hardships of the past forty-four years. During most of its history, this country has seen uprisings, takeovers, coups, wars, genocide, and religious reforms. It was a way of life. On July 27, 2021, Amir applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), a program for Afghan nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government to receive a U.S. visa, thinking they might need them in the future. “We had no plan of leaving in this type of situation,” Amir said. The visas can take a year and a half to two years to obtain. Now the Taliban was knocking at the door.

On May 1, 2021, as the U.S. prepared to leave the country, the Taliban began their final offensive, capturing province after province. On August 15, Amir was in a meeting to discuss security and contingency planning when Security informed everyone to pack up important information, get their laptops, and leave. The Taliban were at the edge of the city. Amir said goodbye to his colleagues, not knowing that Kabul would fall that same day.

It was 11:30 in the morning. Cars filled every road. People rushed to the bank to withdraw funds before the Taliban arrived. With traffic at a standstill, Amir walked home. He called his father to tell him to go to the market to get three months’ worth of provisions. Friends began to call, urging him and his family to leave the country. Because of Amir’s job supporting the U.S. government and his father’s role in the military, no one knew what type of retaliation to expect once the Taliban took over.

The next two weeks were ones of deep stress. Ali and Mariani, who have lived in Afghanistan and been married forty-eight years, did not want to leave. “I couldn’t leave them to stay alone,” Amir said. “My father’s background, my mother’s health…they needed care.” At the same time, he contacted former colleagues and mentors in and out of the country to get assistance with evacuation. No one responded. Sleep came in three- and four-hour increments. Chaos, desperation, fear, and panic flooded the city. Finally, his parents agreed to leave. “It’s a difficult decision to leave everything,” he said, not just for his parents but for Amir, Ayla, their children, and Ayla’s family.

The U.S. launched Operation Allies Refuge to airlift selected Afghan citizens considered at risk of reprisal. Finally, a colonel in the U.S. Special Forces contacted Ayla’s family to help arrange for evacuation. Twice the family reached the gates to the airport, which was packed with people trying to get on planes. Each time they were rebuffed from boarding the buses that took Afghans into the airport. Ayla’s father, who had also been a high-ranking military officer, was finally able to reach his contacts in the Special Forces, who contacted the person who controlled the airport buses.

At 6 AM, on August 28, Amir, his family, his parents, his in-laws, and over 300 other Afghans left Afghanistan on the last C17 transport. Each person was allowed to bring one backpack. The flight arrived at the U.S. Air Base in Qatar, where they were interviewed and fingerprinted and crammed into an aircraft hangar with hundreds of other evacuees.

Two days later, the family was flown to Ramstein, the U.S.’s largest air base in Germany, which housed 13,000 refugees. Initially told that they would be there for less than two weeks, their stay was extended to 48 days because of a measles outbreak. At Ramstein, they went through health screenings and biometric checks and were vaccinated. For two weeks, they lived in a maintenance hangar with hundreds of other evacuees, with cots for beds, sleeping bags, no heating, and no privacy. The evacuees were served two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. “The U.S. military did the best they could,” Amir said, “with available resources.” Eventually, they were moved to tents that housed 30 people.

On October 16, 2021, the family was flown via commercial airlines to the U.S., where evacuees were dispersed to eight military bases. The family was separated onto two different flights. Because his in-laws were not fluent in English, Amir accompanied them to Ft. Dix, NJ, where they stayed until February 2022. At Ft Dix, they lived in large tents with partitions and heat. Mariani, Ali, Ayla, Talha, and Layla were placed at Ft Bliss’s Dona Ana Base Camp in the desert outside El Paso, Texas for processing, additional screening, and vetting. At the Dona Ana Camp, they were housed in white tent dormitories that accommodated 100 people each. Curtained partitions offered privacy. They slept on Army cots and were provided packaged linens—a blanket and pillow. They stayed there for one month. In December 2021, they were transferred to the ISC resettlement agency in Harrisburg. They spent their first two weeks in a motel in Lemoyne. By the time Amir rejoined the family on February 19, 2022, they had moved into the apartment in Carlisle.

After meeting with the family, Pastor Kevin appealed to his congregation and other Lutheran churches in the area for aid. St. John’s donated a large screen TV, a desk chair, and most importantly, a car that Amir uses to get to and from his job. The church held an ice cream social to welcome the family. Pastor Kevin has organized the members of St. John’s and St. Mark’s to assist with transporting the family to medical appointments, shopping, and ESL lessons, as well as obtaining professional employment offers for Amir. His engineering credentials enabled him to get a position at a local engineering firm. “I feel lucky to be in a field that relates to my education,” he said. He wants to pursue obtaining his professional engineering license so that he will have a shot at job progression. He would like to be able to buy a house for his family.

After seven months in this country, there are still physical, emotional, and societal challenges that need to be resolved. Obtaining citizenship is one of the most significant hurdles. Their visas are only valid for two years. St. John’s and St. Paul’s (in Carlisle) are providing legal guidance for completing the required forms and documentation.

Language is a significant barrier. Amir is the one family member who speaks fluent English. Before Ayla can think about attending college here, she must learn English. Members of St. John’s take her to ESL classes twice a week; one of the members is also teaching her how to drive. Layla’s and Talha’s education is a concern. “It’s important,” Amir said, “that they are in an environment where they are safe and accepted.” Mariani and Ali feel isolated. They don’t have the social bonds that tie them to a community. “There’s a lot to learn and know about this country,” Amir said. “We’re starting from zero. It will take some time.” Often, Amir said, he feels his shoulders are heavy. “I must take the responsibilities for the family. But we are blessed to have the church and community members to help us out.”

American culture is one of self-reliance. Afghan culture is one of community, shared meals, neighbors, and helping hands. By loving and supporting these “aliens,” the church has become the bridge between the two, between Christians and Muslims, difficulty and relief.   “Although the direct resettlement support phase is over,” Pastor Kevin said, “St. John’s will continue to help the family stand on its own.”