An early fall breeze stirred the lush Gardens at Kansas State University, where 13 Afghan women clad in traditional attire laughed and posed for selfies, utterly free to be themselves.
Fatima Jaghoori smiled as she watched the group roam the gardens, pleased to be among a group of Manhattan residents whose work had helped liberate these women from the horrors of Taliban oppression.
Now, more than a year after Afghanistan fell to the terrorist organization following two decades of American and allied military presence, members of the Manhattan Afghan Resettlement Team (MART) continue helping refugees remake their lives in eastern Kansas. Since October 2021, about 120 Afghans have successfully resettled in Manhattan, including five children who were born here. That number is expected to gradually climb in the coming months as more Afghans find their way to the Little Apple.
Led by veterans
Jaghoori, an Afghan American, is a former U.S. Army medical sergeant and current K-State student who has been working since summer 2021 to bring her family members and other Afghans to the U.S. She says watching her home nation be overtaken by the Taliban, a foe that she and her fellow soldiers fought to try to prevent, greatly upset her.
But the fact that other agencies were trying to profit from the situation upset her even more.
“With some of the organizations I was working with (in 2021),it was a this-for-that situation. ‘If you can give us this much money, we can help move this person to Pakistan,’” Jaghoori says. “I was shocked. If you wanted your family member to be moved inside the Kabul airport, you had to pay $2,500 a head. This was happening. It was really, really sad.”
Jaghoori says there were several so-called aid organizations she interacted with that outright told her they had people paying the Taliban to allow Afghans to leave the country.
“They were also asking people for money to take them on military planes, which is already paid for,” Jaghoori says. “They’re just asking to push them in through the gate (at Kabul Airport), which to me, that meant they were already in cahoots with the Taliban. It also made me think of how many people were in danger but didn’t have the funds and were turned away. They were stranded because of greed.”
Afghans who once worked for or assisted U.S. and allied militaries along with their families continue to face torture and death by Taliban enforcers if discovered. Under Taliban rule, women in Afghanistan are beaten and raped if they are not fully clothed and accompanied in public by a male chaperone. Women are barred from attending school or voting. Young men who refuse to join the Taliban are often murdered or forcibly separated from their families.
Jaghoori says her mission to save family members who were in danger led her to contact the Flint Hills Veterans Coalition for any kind of assistance.
“They’re an amazing group of people who just want to make Manhattan and this area a better place,” Jaghoori says. “All these veterans got up and they said, ‘We don’t know how to help you, but we’re going to do something.’”
Through the coalition, Jaghoori was connected to Aaron Estabrook, a veteran who was making plans for a volunteer organization to assist incoming Afghans.
“Aaron reached out to me via Facebook,” Jaghoori says, “and he explained what he was trying to do and asked, ‘Do you want to come to a meeting?’ And I said, ‘sure.’ By then, they had a good group of community members trying to figure out resettlement options.”
Estabrook, a Dodge City native and former Manhattan city commissioner, served in Afghanistan in 2009 as a sergeant with a tank platoon. One of his responsibilities was to choose an interpreter for his platoon. From a room crowded with Afghan men seeking employment, he ultimately selected Matiullah Shinwari because he “looked the most authentic and genuine.” Estabrook credits Shinwari with saving his life and the lives of his fellow soldiers more than once during his yearlong deployment.
Shinwari and his family relocated to Manhattan in 2017 with help from Estabrook and government officials. The two remain close today. Salman Shinwari, Matiullah’s oldest son, celebrated his 9th birthday the same day his family arrived in the United States. He’s now an eighth grader at Eisenhower Middle School. He says the Afghan children who’ve lived in the city awhile, like him, are helping newly relocated students adjust to school in America.
“Having new Afghans come is exciting,” Salman says. “I’m just looking forward to helping them out. We’ll support them. I think they’ll be capable of learning English pretty fast.”
Mirwais Shinwari, Matiullah’s cousin and a former member of the Afghan Special Forces, says he and his relatives appreciate the peacefulness of the Flint Hills. Speaking through a translator, Mirwais says the area has a “calm natural beauty” and “not too much traffic.”
‘Hope for humanity’
Estabrook and Jaghoori’s separate experiences navigating federal red tape to bring Afghan families and friends to the U.S. helped prepare them for a larger resettlement effort.
Estabrook said he received a phone call in August 2021 from an Afghan man who had ties to Afghan families already living in Riley County. The man told him about 60 Afghans had expressed a desire to resettle in Manhattan as they sought to flee their home country. The first family was due to arrive in Kansas by October.
“I remember asking the guy, ‘Did you say six or 60?’” Estabrook recalls. “He meant 60. That is a lot. It was very hard to help Matiullah (Shinwari) for one year with his family. … Thinking about trying to do 60 alone was not possible.”
That phone call led Estabrook to message Jaghoori, and from there Manhattan’s resettlement team began to take shape. The two veterans crafted an outline for a volunteer-based organization focused on resettling refugees and circulated it among leaders of various local agencies. People throughout the Manhattan area responded.
“It was our first Zoom call (Aug. 31), and I think we had over 100 people from various organizations within the Manhattan community that were ready to offer … help, and that was the most amazing thing,” Jaghoori says. “I genuinely thought I was by myself. It really gives you hope for humanity.”
Retired social sciences researcher Susan Adamchak says she was drawn to the resettlement team because she could foresee the challenges they might experience upon arrival. Adamchak belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Manhattan, and she says the then-president of the board, Judy Nickelson, volunteered them both to coordinate donations for arriving families.
“We were able to compile lists of what we thought people would need moving into a house, what kinds of food they might want,” Adamchak says. “We would Google ‘Afghan cuisine’ and then go find some of those ingredients.”
Adamchak said she’s “kind of losing track” of how many people she’s directly helped, but she estimated it must be getting close to 100. In other communities, she says Afghan resettlement is often supported by a church or faith organization that may adopt a particular family. On a national level, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of nine resettlement agencies, and the resettlement team works in conjunction with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas to organize refugee assistance.
Volunteers and housing
Manhattan’s resettlement effort also includes K-State administrators and faculty members, language arts teachers in the Manhattan-Ogden School District, career and technical educators at the Manhattan Area Technical College and drivers with the Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency. KansasWorks, Manhattan Christian College and the Islamic Center of Manhattan are also represented among the team’s volunteers.
Estabrook says that approach to diverse volunteerism was by design, so that when the first online meeting was held, all team members were on the same page. Estabrook says it was important to him to establish that it was indeed a team, and that “no one person was in charge.” He says he pulled that off by trusting in the talents and connections of individuals.
In his day job, Estabrook serves as executive director of the Manhattan Housing Authority, which gives him access to housing aid programs and other resources to help refugees. He says each of the housing authority’s board members not only brings a different set of skills but also a “different type of network” to the table. Estabrook said the volunteer agency is successful because it combines the doctrine of aiding refugees, as taught in numerous Christian and Islamic religions.
“Some of our board members are very closely tied to very conservative Christian organizations, or they are the president of the Islamic Center,” Estabrook says. “We’re just fortunate that when we put a request out, or when we seek help, it goes well beyond anything individually each of us could ever do.”
Elfadil Bashir is an interfaith leader at the Islamic Center. In his day job, he is a plant breeding and genetics postdoctoral researcher at K-State. Bashir was part of the group of volunteers and journalists that went to Kansas City International Airport in October 2021 to pick up the first Afghan family bound for Manhattan.
“The Islamic Center is like home for a lot of MART activities,” Bashir says. “One of the things we started doing was biweekly meetings for Afghan people to let them know what they actually need, how their daily life goes – and if there’s any shortage of something, we can cover it.”
Bashir says Afghans can talk openly about their needs and struggles in the meetings, which are held separately for men and women because of cultural practices.
“We also have language courses for Afghans, and all these things are free of charge at the Islamic Center for them to use,” he says.
One of the earliest and continuing challenges the team has faced is providing housing. K-State was quick to offer a solution for incoming Afghans, thanks in part to connections fostered with K-State’s then-President Richard Myers and his wife, Mary Jo.
Myers is a retired Air Force four-star general and served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005. Mary Jo Myers began her involvement in Afghan issues in 2001 and made her first trip to the country in 2002 as the leader of an organization that supports Afghan children who work to support their families. She also developed admiration and respect for the tenacity of Afghan women, telling the Manhattan Mercury in 2001 that they would risk their lives to receive an education or vote in an election.
The Myerses’ combined strengths aligned with the resettlement team’s goals and led to a partnership allowing Afghan families to live in the Jardine Apartments on the K-State campus for a few months. Scott Seel with Alliance Realty of Manhattan is a resettlement team volunteer working to secure longer term housing options. He said he’s utilized his network to ask people if they’re willing to donate facilities at a free or reduced rate.
“It’s a lot to ask a property owner who can rent out their space to give it away,” Seel says. “Several families are now in long-term housing solutions. We have a handful of individual unaccompanied people, and it’s proven more difficult to find housing for them.”
He says there are a lot of refugee families with small children, which creates another consideration to future space needs. Additionally, Seel says the number of individual Afghans coming to Manhattan has the potential to increase in the coming years, so the resettlement team needs to “figure something out on that front.”
“Most of the families have transitioned into public housing through the Manhattan Housing Authority,” Seel says. “But otherwise, I haven’t gotten much community support for long-term housing solutions from private owners.”
The nature of the Manhattan community is a transient one. A city of approximately 50,000, its population swells during the fall and spring as about 20,000 students flock to K-State. In summertime, the population declines slightly as those students depart. About 25,000 more people live and work at nearby Fort Riley, home of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Adamchak and other volunteers agree that Manhattan is an excellent place for a grassroots resettlement initiative.
“Manhattan is just large enough to have a good base of social services,” Adamchak says, “and it’s small enough that people know each other and know how to play nice in the sandbox, if you will.”
Arriving refugees typically have two immediate needs: learning English and landing a job. Emily Cherms, coordinator of USD 383’s English for Speakers of Other Languages, and her instructors work with Afghan children daily to help reduce the language barrier and acclimate them to the school system. Interpreters with the district assist families with enrolling children in school. In October 2021, Cherms told The Mercury that the district wanted to be “cultural brokers” as they helped Afghan families settle. The school district also employs many Afghans in its transportation and facilities departments.
Marisa Larson was a volunteer case manager for one of the many families to settle locally, helping acquire Social Security cards and baby care items. She also has helped a family of seven children, five of whom are in school, adjust culturally. A Manhattan resident for the past 11 years, Larson works as a grant writer and editor at the Kansas State University Foundation. She hopes her skills will help the team’s mission.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to convey what the situation is like for (Afghan families) in a compelling manner, and that it inspires people to want to support MART and our efforts to help families settle here.”
Larson says the main challenge team members faced was learning on the fly.
“It was a lot of, ‘This family needs X, where do we find that?’” Larson says. “Thankfully in my life I’ve not needed to utilize the social safety net services our society has, but our Afghan families are eligible for them initially. Learning how to access those, and what the process is, has been a learning experience I think for all of us.”
Estabrook says people from similar agencies in other states have come to Manhattan to train resettlement team volunteers and been surprised by the group’s leadership structure. Leaders of federal agencies are also taking notice of the team’s work.
In November, team members had a virtual meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about their involvement with the national resettlement effort, called Operation Allies Welcome. Michael Horvath, HUD’s Pittsburgh Field Office director, is overseeing agency activities relating to Operation Allies Welcome. He says the work of the Manhattan resettlement team has been wonderful to highlight as a best practice for communities that have welcomed Afghans.
“The MART group is effective because it is a collaborative local effort, ensuring communication and service delivery by local providers,” Horvath wrote in an email. Horvath stated that one key lesson learned from the Manhattan effort is the need to activate local resources to help resettling people, especially with housing. He said the group’s connection to the Manhattan Housing Authority by way of Estabrook leverages the knowledge and expertise of the local housing market and “ensures a long-term continuum of care” that promotes self-sufficiency.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 88,000 Afghans had arrived in the U.S. as of September 2022 as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Jaghoori says pressure needs to be maintained on federal agencies to make sure resettling Afghans, and those still awaiting asylum, get the help they need.
“I have a first sergeant who is retired, and he was in contact with one of his informants who was keeping tabs on one of the most dangerous terrorists in Afghanistan for the past 10 years,” Jaghoori says. “Because (the informant) wasn’t directly paid by the U.S. Army, this first sergeant paid him out-of-pocket, and now he wants to help get him out, and there’s no way to get him out. Since he wasn’t paid by the Army, he doesn’t qualify for a special immigrant visa. This sergeant, who is writing books about his time in the war, is absolutely ready to vouch for his friend (to resettle him), and it means nothing, you know?”
Estabrook says the majority of Afghans living in Manhattan arrived through a special immigrant visa. Others living in the Manhattan region may have performed similar work but aren’t eligible for the visa program.
“These challenges can be addressed in the Afghan Adjustment Act that Sen. Jerry Moran co-sponsored last year,” Estabrook says. “It has bipartisan support, and needs to be adopted in 2023, or these individuals would face the unthinkable (deportation).”
In December, the Kansas Republican wrote on his website that veterans of the war in Afghanistan are “calling for Congress to provide safety and certainty for their allies and friends who assisted them in battle.”
“We must answer that call and establish a pathway for our Afghan partners to begin a new life,” Moran wrote. “This legislation will put a program in place to protect our national security while also keeping our promise to those who risked their lives for America.”
In part, the proposed Afghan Adjustment Act would establish a task force that would develop a national strategy for supporting Afghans who are eligible for a special immigrant visa. It would also expand that visa program to include previously omitted groups, including the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, the Afghan Air Force and the Special Mission Wing of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the resettlement team’s mission continues. Jaghoori says financial donations are always accepted through the organization’s website, allieswelcome.com.
“If we do not receive vouchers for furniture or kitchen supplies are low at the local Kitchen Restore or if the Flint Hills Breadbasket is low on food or halal meats, we are able to help pay for those items without having to pay out of our pockets, which I know Aaron, Miss Judy and Miss Susan have done in the past.”
And more English teachers and translation services are needed. Manhattan Area Technical College instructors are teaching English to resettled adults, but Jaghoori says there are only two instructors at the college to handle multiple classes a week.
The school district is distributing donated supplies, such as toiletries and children’s clothing, through its FIT Closet, which was formed to provide household assistance to families experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. School libraries in the district are now carrying bilingual books in English and Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan – although there are more than 40 individual dialects spoken within the country. The resettlement team has also partnered with the local Farm and Food Council to provide families with cooking supplies through its Kitchen Restore program.
“That level of collaboration and cooperation has just been remarkable,” Adamchak says. “In a way, a lot of the group is composed of leaders.”
That enthusiasm for local leadership has trickled down to resettled Afghans as well. Idrees Khalil was recruited by U.S. forces in 2021 as an interpreter and arrived in Manhattan in January 2022. An interpreter and legal representative by trade, Khalil evacuated his native Kabul and was moved into a space provided by the Manhattan Housing Authority in late February. He received his Kansas driver’s license in April, opening up employment opportunities. In May, Khalil got a full-time job with Catholic Charities as a refugee support services case manager in Manhattan.
In July, Khalil was appointed by then-Mayor Linda Morse to serve as a commissioner on the Manhattan Housing Authority board, effectively making him one of Estabrook’s “bosses” within seven months of his arrival in America. Morse says that board needed a tenant position filled, and since Khalil was living in MHA housing, he was a perfect fit.
“It’s that tenant perspective that is so important for that board,” Morse says. “I’ve been really pleased with the effort that we’ve had in regard to Afghan resettlement here. This has been peaceful, and the community as a whole has come forward and been very supportive, and I think we can accept more immigrants here.”
Estabrook can imagine an Afghan-centric business district in Manhattan at some point, featuring shops and restaurants that celebrate Afghan culture. Khalil can envision the same thing, but it will take time. He says Afghans like him have experienced a 180-degree shift in every aspect of their lives, and that they previously worried about how they’d be perceived in a new American city.
“The good thing is, here in Manhattan, Kansas, we were warmly welcomed,” Khalil says, “and we have received warm support from the community, which is a good sign.”
Jaghoori thinks resettlement volunteers are “doing God’s work.”
“That’s the best way I can say it. These folks out here, they really do God’s work. It’s a good definition of the Midwest, and a good definition of how welcoming Kansas is and Kansans are. When it comes to conflict, they’re gung-freaking-ho about helping others.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.