TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Noman Raoufi came home from work to find every window shattered, doors unhinged, light bulbs popped.
In northern Kabul, on the street where his family lived, a bomb had sent a police car flying 30 feet before it landed in a flaming heap. It knocked men off chairs and killed at least one person.
Noman, an Afghan interpreter with the U.S. military, was sure the blast was meant to kill him. As the Taliban clawed back power, anyone with American ties could be a target.
Months later, Noman, his two brothers, three sisters and their parents managed to board an evacuation flight out of Afghanistan during the American military’s August 2021 withdrawal. They faced a dilemma typical of the 400 Afghan refugees who have settled in Tampa Bay since December: What now?
They had one suitcase, total, and the clothes on their backs.
They had, courtesy of the U.S. government, about $1,200 per person and an Airbnb in Tampa.
They had limited time to find jobs and a permanent place to live. With no rental history and soaring prices, it wouldn’t be easy.
Dreams and responsibilities
Noman, 25, is busy most waking hours.
He pulls weekends at Walmart and nights driving Lyft. Then there’s his day job: helping fellow Afghans employed by Westminster Communities of Florida — the provider of his new home.
Six months after arriving in Tampa, he and four siblings work full-time for Westminster, a not-for-profit company that runs nursing homes and senior communities across Florida.
In February, the family settled into a three-bedroom rental home blocks from one of those senior communities. The sprawling campus of Westminster Point Pleasant in Bradenton features views of boats sailing the Manatee River.
They couldn’t bring any decor at all from Afghanistan, but Westminster sent a photographer to the home after they moved in, and now a family photo sits on their dining table.
All of this — the housing, the jobs — came about thanks to a pitch from Westminster.
Struggling mightily to fill openings in the high-turnover industry of senior care, Westminster offered to find housing for refugees who would take jobs at its locations. Now Afghans who had fled chaos were strolling the sedate halls among retirees who made curious small talk about what they’d seen on the news, and who offered chocolates to say welcome.
Some of the housing the company owns. In other cases, Westminster signed leases to assuage otherwise reluctant landlords.
“For every landlord that worked with me, there were 10 who said no,” said Mary Klein, Westminster’s chief human resources officer. “And I had the weight of a $200 million company behind me. I can only imagine (the refugees) trying to find places on their own.”
More than 40 Afghans now work at Westminster communities in St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Orlando. Including their families — and three babies born on U.S. soil — Westminster has found housing for around 100 refugees.
Noman works in human resources as the company’s liaison to its new Afghan employees, many of whom are still learning English.
After hours, too, Noman’s phone rings often as he helps families navigate the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. He coordinates with volunteers and interprets not only the English language but cultural misunderstandings. He researches schools and has written to the DMV offering to translate the written driver license test into Dari or Pashto.
Everyone knows Noman.
“Noman was the same in Afghanistan, always helping, always busy, leaving at 5 in the morning and coming back 9 p.m.,” said his sister Atefah, 21, an engineering student and elementary teacher in Afghanistan now working as a receptionist at Westminster.
At home, he’s the one keeping his brothers Suliman, 19, and Omran, 18, on track, making sure they’re studying English. Suliman works maintenance at Westminster and a second job at a beauty supply store. He plans to study nursing. Omran works in housekeeping and wants to be a pharmacist.
At night, the family gathers. They all watch TV, mostly European soccer. Their mother cooks, often traditional Afghan food, but new dishes, too, like chicken wings and pizza.
Asked recently what the family did for fun since arriving in Florida, Noman seemed confused by the question.
Had they eaten out anywhere? (“Sometimes we eat here,” he said of the Westminster cafeteria.) Been to the beach? (Once, briefly, right after arriving in Bradenton.) Looked for a pickup soccer match? (No, but he is a good player, he said, showing the slightest pridefulness during a long interview otherwise marked by humility.)
He paused before finally explaining, “We don’t want to waste not even half an hour.”
A solution to replicate?
Refugees arrived in Tampa Bay in large numbers in December after going through screening at military bases.
Westminster had just pitched its housing idea to Lutheran Services, and the local resettlement agency had eagerly embraced it.
“Lutheran would call me and say, can you find another apartment? Got any more jobs?” Klein said.
Westminster covers two months of rent and six weeks of food. After a year, families will have landlord and work references, and they can take over the leases or find their own places. The goal is self-sufficiency.
Westminster and Lutheran Services hope the program will be replicated, especially with more refugees expected from Ukraine and elsewhere. Westminster paid for the program partly with a grant from its foundation, but Klein said it would have made sense regardless. “The cost per person for rent and food was less than we were previously paying in sign-on bonuses.”
Refugees work as housekeepers, maintenance workers and dishwashers, but also as bookkeepers and marketing assistants. The jobs aren’t necessarily high-paying or long-term careers. Noman has a law degree. His sister Venus, a former assistant attorney for the Afghan government, works in maintenance. A pilot works as a server in a dining hall.
Westminster knows these positions aren’t the dream, said Denise Chandler, director of people development and learning. “We want them to achieve those dreams, but how are we going to get them there?”
The first step, she said, is English. “Then it’s a question of: What’s important to you? We have those conversations all the time.”
Since pursuing a law career in the U.S. would mean practically starting over, Noman plans to study computer science. He was accepted to two state colleges but hit a snag when they labeled him an out-of-state student, making tuition far more expensive.
His family’s most pressing concerns now, Noman said, are the same as many Afghan refugees: reunification, and making their case to the U.S. government for why they should be allowed to stay.
Noman was granted a Special Immigrant Visa for his work with the U.S., granting him permanent resident status, but the rest of his family are temporary parolees with two years to apply for asylum here. If not approved, they face returning to Afghanistan.
Noman would go back, too, if his family had to. “Without family,” he said, “life is meaningless.”
Noman wants Americans to remember the risks Afghans took to help the U.S. military.
Mostly though, he wants to be clear that while he’s grateful to be here, leaving home never was what most Afghans wanted. It was survival.
“You think everyone would be happy to finally get on that plane,” he said of his harrowing evacuation. “But when I look around, everyone is crying. Afghans call our country our mother. We were crying because we lost our mom.”
Senior residents get involved
On a recent afternoon in St. Petersburg, Afghan families mingled with retirees wearing name tags in a small clubhouse at Westminster Shores, a collection of residential buildings with manicured grass and tall palms overlooking Tampa Bay.
It was an open house marking the start of free English classes for adult refugees and children. It would be taught by about a dozen residents who’d volunteered. Many were former educators.
Noman was translating. Elementary-aged kids sat on one side of the room, teenagers along the other. Some picked at slices of watermelon or chocolate chip cookies.
The arrival of the Afghans at Westminster Shores months earlier gave a jolt of excitement to the residents, who worked quickly to help furnish refugees’ rental homes, said Nancy Kramer, a former teacher.
David Schenk, 79, a former professor and dean at the University of South Florida, had volunteered for months. His wife, Mary Jane Schenk, had organized retirees, including David, to drive Afghan children to school at Lakewood Elementary.
Early mornings he’d be at the wheel of his van full of children chatting away in Dari. They learned fast. One morning, he told an 8-year-old girl “bye bye,” and the girl responded, “Have a nice day.”
Schenck said he sat in the parking lot, pondering what might have happened if the girl had not been evacuated.
“We traveled the world when we were younger, but I never thought of going to Afghanistan,” he said. “But Afghanistan came to me. I’m getting old. If I can help them out in some way, I get a big kick out of it.”
It might make sense that Afghans worked out at Westminster. Afghan culture has a great respect for elders, Noman said, and places a high value on hospitality. Afghans have hosted senior residents in their homes for tea and vice versa. Residents have downloaded translation apps to communicate in the dining hall.
“Candidly, we weren’t sure when we started the program how the residents would react,” Klein said. “Now they’re cooking for each other, bringing recipes to each other, teaching each other words. Exchanging gifts.”
Suliman, the Raoufi brother working in maintenance, often has a large haul of candy to divvy up between siblings at the end of the day.
“I have many grandmothers now,” he said, with Noman translating. “Many aunts and uncles.”