An American Story

December 12, 2018
By Kathryn Winogura, Volunteer Services Manager

I want to share an American story that I got to be part of last week. It embodies everything I know this country stands for. It starts like this:

I get a call first thing in the morning from a colleague, wanting to know if I’m coming in soon. There’s a family from Afghanistan who has just arrived at the San Francisco airport and they have nowhere to go. Our team needs to meet asap to figure this out.

Some background: Afghans who worked with U.S. personnel in Afghanistan are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa to bring their families to the States. Once they are approved and issued their visas, they then wait for their travel arrangements to be made. This bureaucratic process can take many months. However, because they have their visas in hand, some of them choose to just buy their own one-way tickets and get themselves here.  We’ve had quite a few of these “walk in” cases. They’re complicated because we have no advance notice that people are coming and therefore no way to prepare for them.

So one day last week, this family of seven arrives at SFO from Kabul at 5:30 in the morning. They go through customs, and when they say they have no plan for what to do next, the customs official calls his Afghan co-worker, Khaled, to come over and talk with them. Khaled learns that they have no idea where to go and what to do. He then remembers that his mother is friends with our two Afghan case managers. Khaled calls his mom. His mom calls one of our staff. We call Khaled. The family is literally sitting in the international terminal with all their suitcases, hoping for good news.

On our end, our team is quickly meeting to come up with a plan. Can we take the case? How will we get them from the airport? Where will we put them tonight? Where will they live on an ongoing basis? We go back and forth with Khaled, getting as much info as we can. We make a few phone calls and connect with “Z,” an amazing Afghan woman who lives nearby and will take the family in for two weeks. A few more phone calls and we have them on a mini bus (again, there are seven people in this family) on the way to our office. And a few hours after this whole thing started, they arrive. We pile their suitcases into one office and welcome them with hot pizza in another.

Our Afghan case managers then work to help us all understand how and why the family decided to travel like this. The father tells us: “I told my kids . . . we will leave this to God. We will get to America. And if I have to get us to a hotel and we stay there, I will go out and find a job. And we will be okay. But then,” he says, “God comes in the form of Khaled, at the airport.”

Khaled had made all those phone calls and stuck with them all morning. When he finally secured the arrangements for the family to come to us, he had told them, “There is an agency called ‘Jewish Family.’ They will help you.” The father then turned to his family and said he knew that this group, with this name, must also believe in God. So this is where it’s okay to go.

That evening, they arrive at Z’s house in three of our staff members’ cars. There is a warm dinner waiting and beds with blankets.

These seven newcomers are now our clients and, along with our volunteers, we will do the work to resettle them and help them be successful here.

Here are my two takeaways from this amazing day:

1. Even the customs officials watched out for them.

2. I believe that there is hardly a country in the world where you can set out without a plan, hope that you will find a job, believe you can make it, and this will mostly be true. But it’s been done here since the beginning. This is how most of us got here. This is what America is supposed to be about.


(A note regarding the pictures: we asked the dad if he was willing to let us share photos of his family. He said that he would like that because he wants to be an inspiration for others.)