Naeem Walizada raised his arm and blocked the butt of the Kalashnikov assault rifle that was aimed at his head.

It was August, and Walizada and his family were on their way to Kabul’s airport – seven frightened people among thousands who were streaming across the capital city, hoping to get on an evacuation flight as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

Walizada was on the ground, beaten down by Taliban fighters who were trying to stop the tidal wave of people attempting to flee before the Islamist military organization completed its takeover.

“They beat people for no reason,” Walizada said through an interpreter. “They came to us and they warned us, so we felt we had to leave.”

Walizada, who is 46, deflected the rifle strike and survived the beating. With little more than the clothes on their backs, he and his wife, Farida Safi, continued their trek to the airport with five of their six children. Passing through checkpoints, they managed to get on a flight.

Now, they are living in Portland, one of several Afghan families that have been resettled in the area since mid-October by Catholic Charities Maine.


Walizada and his family spent most of September and October waiting, with nearly 7,000 other Afghan evacuees, at Camp Atterbury in Indiana.

By the end of last week, Catholic Charities Maine had welcomed 68 Afghans, all of whom have family ties in Cumberland County, said Hannah DeAngelis, director of refugee and immigration services at the faith-based agency.

Catholic Charities is leading an ever-expanding effort to resettle a small portion of roughly 60,000 evacuees who were airlifted out of Kabul and scattered among eight military bases across the United States, where most of them still wait.

“At this pace, we’ll easily hit our allocation of 100 evacuees before the end of the year,” DeAngelis said.

But more Afghan refugees likely will be coming to Maine.

Last month, the federal government approved two additional organizations to assist with Afghan resettlement Maine, said Tarlan Ahmadov, state refugee coordinator.


HIAS, an international refugee resettlement program formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, selected the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland as one of seven new resettlement centers in its network. The alliance will resettle up to 25 additional Afghans and up to 100 other refugees, Ahmadov said.

The Ethiopian Community Development Council, a national resettlement network based in Arlington, Virginia, will work through Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services in Lewiston to resettle up to 100 additional Afghans, Ahmadov said.

“The State Department’s expansion of refugee resettlement support demonstrates a commitment to welcoming the most vulnerable who are no longer safe in their homeland,” Ahmadov said in a written statement. “I am excited to see services and support for refugees grow and know that, by working together, we will continue to be a beacon for all New Mainers.”

Maine’s established Afghan community also has responded to the sudden influx of new arrivals, formally organizing last month as the Afghan Community of Maine and electing a five-member board of directors. About 400 Afghan Americans live in Maine, mostly clustered around Portland.

The president of the new Afghan group is Abdul Rahman Qani, 44, of Westbrook, who is a physician assistant in South Portland. Other board members live in Portland and Gorham.

Qani said the group plans to help welcome new arrivals to Maine with interpreting and other support, and to assist Afghans already here with the application process to bring family members from Afghanistan. Applying for humanitarian parole is a long, complex and expensive effort that costs $575 per person, and each person requires a financial sponsor.


“Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of representation and assistance available when I came to Maine in 2013,” Qani said. “I wish we had.”

The new Afghan group formed with the financial and administrative oversight of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, a Portland-based agency that lends its organizational expertise and 501 (c)(3) credibility with the Internal Revenue Service to grassroots groups working with immigrants.

Under the umbrella of the coalition’s official nonprofit status, groups such as the Afghan Community of Maine can legally raise and spend money, apply for grants, build membership and develop an organizational structure that would allow them to operate independently in the future.

“Community organizations like this often form out of a crisis,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the coalition. “The current crisis in Afghanistan required Afghans in Maine to organize more formally.”

Chitam said the hope is that the new group will be able to unify diverse segments of the Afghan community in Maine to work together and achieve common goals.

Ghomri Rostampour, an immigrant advocate who has been working with the Afghan community, agreed with Chitam.


“It is an opportunity for Afghan men and woman to work together, side by side, to accomplish so much for the Afghan community in Maine,” said Rostampour, a Kurdish American who lives in South Portland.

Sara Jafari, a board member of the new Afghan group, sees a clear need to assist Afghan women and children who are coming to Maine. She lives in Portland and is a phlebotomist with the American Red Cross.

“Everything is new for them. Everything is scary,” said Jafari, 43. “Many of them can’t speak English. They have been through so much. They need help to delete the past and move forward.”

Catholic Charities is helping the new arrivals move forward with medical screenings that must be completed before enrolling children in local schools. The process includes reviewing medical records, checking for communicable diseases and immunizing against common childhood illnesses. About half of the new arrivals are children, DeAngelis said.

Catholic Charities caseworkers also are helping older evacuees enroll in adult education classes, connect with immigration law experts to apply for asylum and access social services allocated for Afghan refugees. On the upside, they already have work permits issued by the federal government.

The biggest challenge remains finding housing for the new arrivals in a real estate market that’s super tight for people who have abundant financial resources, let alone for refugees who have little or no money and have yet to secure jobs. The evacuees are staying with family members or in temporary apartments or hotel rooms.

“Our big focus is still on housing,” DeAngelis said.

Like most of the new arrivals, Walizada left behind his home and livelihood – he operated a car mechanic’s shop. He and his wife also left behind their eldest son, a student who is staying with a relative. They haven’t spoken to him since they left because they haven’t been able to make international calls. The worry and heartbreak shows on their faces.

“We left everything behind,” Walizada said. “I look forward to seeing my kids in school and having a job, and a home, and a car. All the things we had before. We love the U.S.A.”

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