A new country, a new baby, and the universal bonds of parenthood

Photo by Shuran Huang for The Washington Post.
Michelle Cooper chats with 5-year-old Mubariz at the family’s apartment.

They learned they were expecting their second child on a cold January afternoon, in the fifth month that Mohammad, his wife, Zar, and their then-4-year-old son, Mubariz, had spent in hiding from the Taliban in the northern Afghan city of Mazar e-Sharif. “I think I am pregnant,” Zar told Mohammad that day. Though he had grown a long beard and tried to avoid being seen outside by someone who might identify him, he quickly went to a nearby pharmacy to buy a test that confirmed the news.

They were simultaneously elated and utterly terrified. Zar, who had worked as a primary schoolteacher before the new regime seized power, prayed for another son; she knew what the future would be – or what it couldn’t be – if she delivered a little girl under Taliban rule.

But Mohammad was gripped by a conviction that they were expecting a daughter. “I knew that her future will be black in Afghanistan,” he says. “I knew we had to leave there, at any cost.”

The cost would be high: A sudden flight from the home they’d always known and the many family members they loved; an arrival in a foreign country, with no belongings to their name; a complete reliance on others to help them find community and reorient themselves in a new life as they prepared to welcome their baby in early October.

Eight months later and 7,000 miles away, on an overcast September afternoon, Mohammad, 30, Zar, 27, and 5-year-old Mubariz watch through the window of a small one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Va., as the visitor they’re awaiting pulls into the parking lot below. Michelle Cooper’s car is packed with bags of clothing, furniture, toys and baby gear she has been carefully collecting for days, destined for the modest home on the second floor where the young family of refugees has lived since June.

“Honored to do a little something to help, just like others helped my family a few generations ago,” Cooper wrote to Mohammad when they were introduced, and she explained that she would help equip his family with the nursery supplies they needed.

“This is called humanity,” Mohammad replied. “We are so thankful to all of you.”

Mohammad and Zar are no longer living in constant fear for their family’s safety; before the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mohammad had worked for an American international development company, which made him a target of the Taliban. (The family is being identified by first or middle names only to protect the safety of relatives who are still in Afghanistan.)

But the transition to a new life in an unknown country has been daunting. When they stepped off the plane at Dulles International Airport on June 2, there was no one waiting to meet them. It took several days for an aid agency caseworker to return their calls and finally visit them at their hotel, and two more months before Zar was able to see a doctor, who confirmed that her pregnancy was progressing normally. The family has often felt left adrift as they’ve tried to adjust to this new reality, Mohammad says, and despite his qualifications and fervent desire to work again, he has yet to find a job that will allow him to provide for his growing family.

In the midst of what has been a chaotic and stressful resettlement for so many refugee families, networks of local parent volunteers – including Cooper, a 48-year-old mother of two in D.C. – have emerged, working furiously to help bridge some of the gaps left by understaffed and overwhelmed aid agencies. These parents have furnished apartments, assembled nurseries, helped with job applications and school enrollments, driven people to doctor and dental appointments, delivered groceries and diapers and collected countless hand-me-down clothes and new toys. They have also spent time listening to the families who have not often had an opportunity to share all they have endured.

After carrying their deliveries to Mohammad and Zar’s apartment, Cooper and her 11-year-old daughter, Raleigh, sit on a couch in the tidy living room, sipping from cups of juice offered by their hosts. “Your home is beautiful,” Cooper says. “You’ve settled in so quickly.”

“When we left Afghanistan, we had nothing,” Mohammad says. “We had -” he tugs gently at the collar of his shirt; they had only the clothes they were wearing.

They talk for a while about their life before, and their life now – how happy their son is to go to school, and how quickly he is already learning words and phrases in English after just one month in kindergarten. His parents are no longer afraid to see him leave in the morning, they explain: Beyond the threat posed by the Taliban, children in Afghanistan were sometimes kidnapped and held for ransom. Every day, Mohammad says, he would call Zar from his office to make sure Mubariz had come home safely.

“There were criminals who would kidnap the children, for just a small amount of money, and if they don’t get it, they kill,” he says. “They don’t care.” As he speaks, Raleigh slips quietly from the couch to the floor to sit beside Mubariz, helping him sift through a box of new toys.

“I can’t imagine,” Cooper says softly. “I am so glad you’re here.”

Mohammad’s gaze settles on his little boy as he happily wheels a small blue and white truck over the carpet.

“We are here today,” Mohammad says, and again, as if to truly believe it: “Now we are here.”

– – –

In the waning days of the Afghanistan war in August 2021, as desperate masses swarmed the airport in Kabul, Lydia Weiss found herself unable to turn away from the news.

Weiss, a 48-year-old mother of two in Northwest D.C., was about to embark on a sabbatical from work. “I thought: This is what I want to do,” she says. “I want to help.”

She connected with Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, one of the agencies that has been helping to resettle Afghans in the region, and signed up to furnish a new apartment for a refugee family. Weiss found the experience so fulfilling, she says, that she assembled a growing network of local parents who also offered to volunteer time, supplies and funds.

“I really tapped my kids’ school community, big-time,” she says. “I used the neighborhood Facebook page, and the Buy Nothing page. I used local listservs. I emailed everyone.”

About 150 volunteers have joined her efforts, she says, nearly all of whom are parents, and most are working mothers. This, she feels, is at the heart of what compels them: the universality of wanting a better life for one’s child, and the empathy to imagine how it might feel to endure such trauma as a family.

“We help with job résumés, we set up playdates with their kids, we bring them the things they need when a new baby is coming, we help get them oriented with how to use public transportation in their neighborhoods,” Weiss says. “What drives my group of women is just that we’re always trying to think like a mom; we know how to solve these kinds of problems.”

Those moments of exchange and connection “still choke me up every time,” Weiss says. “Often there is no language in common. All that is in common is parenthood.”

When Megan Flores, executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Outreach Center, recently offered Weiss a list of expectant families in need of nursery supplies, Weiss paired Mohammad and Zar with Cooper, who was among Weiss’s circle of volunteers but had yet to coordinate a donation drive herself. Cooper was both nervous and eager to take it on, she says.

“As somebody who is Jewish, I think about the plight of migration from the beginning of time all the way through to when my own ancestors were coming to this country,” Cooper says. “I know that I am a beneficiary, generations later, of someone else’s kindness. And I love being able to pay that forward a little bit.”

Flores says this sort of matchmaking – pairing individual volunteers or groups of volunteers with refugee families – has been especially vital over the past year, as aid agencies have been overwhelmed.

It is a complicated situation, she adds, because she knows the aid agencies are grappling with extraordinary demand, often while balancing staffing shortages. But “some of these refugee families have never seen their caseworker,” Flores says. “There’s no excuse for the way that some of these families have been treated.”

A spokesperson for Lutheran Social Services noted the unprecedented increase in demand that the agency has faced since last summer. “We went from accepting 500 people for an entire year for resettlement, to 500 a month for resettlement,” the spokesperson said. In a written statement, the agency added, “Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area continues to proudly provide resettlement services to the largest number of Afghan Allies on the East Coast since last summer.”

Flores says it has been deeply gratifying to see how more personal interactions between local residents and refugee families can change lives, for all involved.

“It’s one thing to write a check to an organization, but it’s another thing to go to someone’s house and really see their situation firsthand,” she says. “These families have been shuffled through the system . . . to have someone stop and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What do you need? What have you been through?’ That means so much.”

Photo by Shuran Huang for The Washington Post.
Donated baby bottles and socks are seen in Mohammad and Zar’s apartment in Alexandria, Va.

– – –

It was the night of Aug. 9, 2021 when Mohammad stood on the roof of his family’s home in Mazar e-Sharif, watching as Taliban fighters swarmed the streets. One week later, he and Zar packed Mubariz into a car with relatives from Kabul and traveled nine hours south to the capital city, threading through a panicked crowd of thousands outside the airport gates, only to turn away without hope of getting through.

“The Taliban kept shooting, a rain of bullets was coming down from the sky. I was not worried about myself, but I was worried about my son and my wife,” Mohammad said. “My son, he had never seen such terrible things before. I think he will never forget.”

Before the American withdrawal, the family had never imagined leaving their country. “I had a good salary, I had all my family there,” Mohammad says. “We had a hope that one day all people there will live under peace.”

For many months, they didn’t know if they would be able to escape. But a call came at last from the U.S. State Department one April morning, with instructions for Mohammad and his family to travel immediately to Kabul. There was no time to prepare, and they were not permitted to bring any belongings. Mohammad’s father was at work; he couldn’t make it home in time to hug his son goodbye.

Mohammad’s voice breaks when he recounts their abrupt departure, and their fear for the family left behind. “These things are not in my control,” he says. “I want to cry, but I want to be strong.”

But there was also tremendous relief as they left, he says. Bound first for Qatar, he and Zar kept willing themselves to believe that they were finally flying to freedom. “We were laughing on the plane,” he says. “We had nothing, but we were so happy.”

For several months spanning their departure from Afghanistan and their arrival in the United States, they had no access to medical care, and Zar went without prenatal appointments, Mohammad says. It was mid-August before they finally met with a new doctor, who told them that they were expecting a little girl. They looked at each other and laughed; this time, Zar says, the thought of a daughter brought them only joy.

“I am so happy now, that she [will be] born here,” Zar says, “because here, I think her future is bright.”

Her own future feels brighter, too. Zar was studying English in Afghanistan, and she has already made plans to join classes at a local library after her daughter is born. There is a quiet determination to her voice when she speaks of this – “Soon, I will get started studying again, to improve myself,” she says – and Mohammad smiles proudly.

“She is a very hard-working lady,” he says of his wife, “and she can do whatever she wants.”

– – –

A wooden crib is waiting for their daughter in the little bedroom where the family of four will sleep side by side. Cooper helps carry a donated changing table into the room, placing it carefully in one corner.

More deliveries will follow, Cooper promises – winter coats, and a few other items that didn’t fit in her car on this first trip. “We’d love to stay in touch, if there are things we can do to make sure you’re okay and comfortable and have what you need,” she says.

“Thank you so much for all you are doing,” Zar says.

Before their visitors leave, Mohammad shares a final memory from Afghanistan: One frigid winter morning as he walked to work, he says, he passed an unhoused family huddled together on the frozen ground. “They had a child, like my son,” he says. “They had no jackets. Sleeping on the snow. It was so cold.” The sight of them tormented him, he says, “so I went to my work, and I shared the story with my colleagues, and I said: ‘If we don’t help them tonight, they will be no more.’ ” His co-workers banded together, he says, and bought plentiful supplies to deliver to the family – tents, mattresses, dishes, food, clothing.

“We became so happy, from here,” he says, smiling and placing his palm over his heart. There is a symmetry that resonates now, as he remembers that other version of his life, when he was the one in a position to give: “We helped them like you are helping us.”

“Oh,” Michelle says, mirroring his own gesture, placing her hand on her chest. “What you did was amazing, what we did was just a small -“

But Mohammad gently interjects, shaking his head. “I believe helping is not something ‘big’ or ‘small,’ ” he says. “It is always big.”