One late August afternoon last year, Asadullah received an email from the U.S. Army. The native Afghan was working with Americans in Kabul, Afghanistan, at the time. The email warned him to leave for America as the U.S. was withdrawing its troops from the country, and the Talibans were rapidly taking over.

He and his wife, Zahra, took their two pre-kindergarten-age daughters and headed for Kabul’s airport the next morning. A few pieces of children’s clothes, bottles of water and a handful of nuts. That was all they took with them — all stuffed in one brown backpack.

A Good Neighbor Team is a group of five to 10 people from a local church or community group that partners with World Relief North Texas to welcome and assist one refugee family for a six-month commitment. The team can be partnered with a refugee family that has already arrived or will be arriving in Texas. Teams work with World Relief to support their initial resettlement to set up their apartment. More information about joining and donating may be found here.  

Many Afghans rushed to the airport for the same reason. Asadullah and his family slept on the airport’s floor for two days before they boarded a U.S. military plane. Just two days after they left, a bomb exploded at the airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans. 

“We are fortunate that we got out of Afghanistan,” Asadullah said. The Fort Worth Report is not using the full name of Asadullah and Zahra because of safety concerns.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, unbeknown to Asadullah and his family, Fort Worth resident Susan Cole and her fellow friends from the Arlington Chinese Church were awaiting their arrival. Cole initiated a Fort Worth “Good Neighbor Team,” a partnership with World Relief North Texas, to help newly arrived refugee families settle down during their first six months in the region.

Newly arrived refugees “don’t know the language. They don’t know the culture. They don’t know how anything works in this country,” Cole said. “God calls us all to love our neighbors … so the motivation to do it was founded upon biblical principles.”

After days of layover in U.S. military bases in Qatar and Italy, Philadelphia’s airport and El Paso’s military base, the family arrived in Fort Worth late October. They met Fort Worth’s Good Neighbor Team shortly after. 

The family officially embarked on their American life.  

Starting from zero

When the family first met the team, they lived in an Airbnb. The family waited on World Relief North Texas to find them an apartment. 

World Relief is a global, religion-based humanitarian organization. The organization partners with local churches and communities to help refugees and immigrants in the U.S. The Good Neighbor Team is a project that helps new refugee families adjust to life in the country for the first six to 12 months. A team consists of five to 10 people, and they help families with apartment set-up, school registration and job preparation among other things.

Ten days after living at the Airbnb, the family moved into their empty, unfurnished apartment. Cole’s Good Neighbor Team got to work. The team assisted them with basic purchases, such as furniture, clothes and food. Members of the team also met with the family weekly. 

The team helped the family register Asadullah’s daughter for kindergarten and taught them about health insurance — everyday tasks that the family would eventually face living in the U.S.

Garrett Pearson is the executive director of World Relief North Texas. The Good Neighbor teams do tasks for newly arrived families that are an important piece to help families regain control of their lives, Pearson said. 

Moving to a new city usually creates a new set of problems. For Asadullah, those issues are compounded.

Asadullah has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from a college in Afghanistan. He worked as a manager and was the representative for his company when it came to communicating with Americans because of his English competency. However, U.S. employers do not recognize his credentials and experience, he said.

When Asadullah arrived in the country, he picked a low-paying job. He works at a department store warehouse, and is the sole breadwinner for his family. His wife, Zahra, takes care of their daughters. Between rent and living expenses, little is left of Asadullah’s paycheck for savings.

Obstacles presented themselves frequently, ranging from the acute to the daily mundane tasks.

During one of their first nights in Fort Worth, Asadullah’s elder daughter got sick. They had to call Cole for help because they didn’t know what to do. Cole is a family physician, so she checked on their daughter, and bought some medicines from a drugstore to help with their child’s illness, Asadullah said.

Running errands was hard for them. As newly arrived refugees, the family did not have a car or a driver’s license. The parents, along with their two children, initially had to carry heavy bags of laundry and walk for an hour to the laundromat, Asadullah recalled. 

“That was very hard for us,” he said. “(But) Good Neighbor Team really helped us a lot. We will never forget their help.”

Five people stands for a photo in a room.
Members of Fort Worth’s Good Neighbor Team. (Courtesy photo: Rachel Gan)

A friendship that transcends faith and time

Arlington resident Rachel Gan is another member of Fort Worth’s Good Neighbor Team. Gan felt helpless as the news from Afghanistan unfolded. She felt small. She thought, as an individual, she couldn’t do anything tangible to help with such a big, international issue. 

But when Cole brought up the idea to her and their Bible study group, she was intrigued. Suddenly, Gan saw a chance to help with the crisis in practical ways, she said. 

Gan works as a music therapist at Children’s Health in Dallas. She works with children who range from a day old to 18 years old. When Gan heard that the family consisted of two children, she looked forward to bonding with them.

“Knowing the trauma that has happened to them, being displaced from their home, living in refugee camps, I think that adds up for a child,” Gan said. “So (I want) to really help and support them in that.” 

The two girls opened up to Gan not long after they met, she said. They shared their toys with her and showed her how to play with them. 

While the parents grocery shopped, Gan took care of the children. They played hide-and-seek along the supermarket aisles and improvised produce bags as balloons.

“They became more playful, and you can really see their personalities come out,” Gan said. 

Gan did volunteer work in college. She assembled care packages and dropped off food for people in need. 

Being part of the Good Neighbor Team was Gan’s first time working with people in a more personal and direct way, she said. Gan got to know the family more as people and beyond their refugee status.

The bond between the team and the family developed and lasted beyond the six months a Good Neighbor Team has to commit. 

The family and the team often get together for home-cooked meals. The team invited the family to their church for Christmas, while the family invited them to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic festival. 

Cole got married in April and invited Asadullah and his family. With Asadullah’s elder daughter’s birthday coming up, the family plans to hold a celebration with the team.

The family is slowly building their lives in Fort Worth with a new social circle and priorities. 

The family initially just wanted a place to live. But now their priority is to send their daughters to school and have a better job for himself and his wife.

As they look toward the future, they are also trying to forget the past. They threw away the worn, brown backpack that carried the little items they possessed when they escaped Afghanistan.

“It’s a bad memory,” Asadullah said.   

Editor’s note: The story was updated on July 22, 2022, to clarify Asadullah’s bachelor’s degree.

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at chongyang.zhang@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Chongyang Zhang

Chongyang Zhang graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2021. Previously, he worked for his school newspaper, The Shorthorn, for a year and a half.