Afghan Family, U.S. Army Driver, Find Safety and New Home in Old Lyme

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OLD LYME — The Popal family readied their house for guests on Monday night to the happy noises of children playing and the aromas of chicken, meatballs and kabuli pulao — a rice dish garnished with carrots and raisins.

In the dining room, tablecloths were spread across the center of a rug. Visitors were invited to sit on floor cushions while husband and wife Hayatullah and Bibi Nebiah Popal, both in their late 20s, set out the feast.

“Have some food,” said Hayatullah, as he handed plates piled high for each guest. 

From the kitchen he brought more food — a basket of Afghan bread, fried potatoes, fruit plates piled high with guava, strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, mandarin oranges, grapes, apples and bananas, and another platter with sliced cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce and green peppers. Bowls of yogurt offered a cooling garnish to the spicy meatballs. 

In the living room, Bibi sat on the floor where she had laid out a similar spread for her children and a number of guests and their children. 

In one corner, several children piled on top of one another, laughing. Bibi eyed the food platters, stood up and walked over to the where the children were playing in the corner. She said a few words and returned with a purloined plate of french fries. 

“Busted,” Bibi said laughing as she returned to sit with her guests.  

New challenges

The couple and their five children immigrated from Afghanistan in September, spent a month at a camp in Fort Pickett, Va., and arrived in Old Lyme on Oct. 16. The Popals have three boys, ages 10, 8, and 3 and two girls ages 4 years and 4 months. The youngest, Sola, was born in the United States and was two weeks old when the family came to Old Lyme.

The Popals are beginning to build a new life in the United States with help from the Refugee Resettlement Committee, a group made up of volunteers from Christ the King Church, Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church, and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. 

The family’s house is owned by the Congregational Church and has been designated for refugee families and people who need a place to stay who have been through travails, explained Cookie Staves, co-chair of the committee. 

“The challenge with this particular family is the numbers – they are a family of seven – and the lack of language proficiency makes everything we do a little bit harder,” she said. 

Staves said 25 to 30 committee members attend twice-monthly meetings. They represent subcommittees that work on education, social services, medical and health issues, and job hunting, as well as fundraising, publicity and finances. 

Volunteers are also helping the parents learn English. Hayatullah attends English as a second language classes five mornings a week. Three or four days a week, tutors help Bibi at home. She speaks Pashto, but does not read.

“She’s never been to school, being a woman in Afghanistan,” said Staves. 

Committee members drive the family to and from appointments, which Staves said can be a challenge given that volunteers need to switch out car seats for the younger children from vehicle to vehicle.

Staves said that volunteers also serve as communication liaisons between the schools and the family.

“You can’t call to say there’s no school tomorrow because it’s snowing outside or the buses will be late tomorrow because it’s icy because they won’t understand that. We get the calls from the school and we’re trying to find a system that works,” she said. 

Difficult decision

Bibi described the family’s difficult flight from Afghanistan to Quatar, packed into a crowded transport plane without seats. She was in her ninth month of pregnancy. The Popals traveled across Germany and landed at Fort Pickett where they stayed in a barrack with other refugee families.

As the months pass, Bibi and Hayatullah said their children are starting to pick up English. 

“At first it was really hard because the kids didn’t study English in Afghanistan and for the older two kids it was difficult because all of their instruction was in English, but they’re doing a lot better. And the little ones seem to be absorbing it too,” said Hayatullah.

He said his family needed to leave Afghanistan because of difficulties with the Taliban. He had worked for the U.S. Army as a driver and he was concerned he had become a target.

“They were saying, ‘We are not going after people who worked with the U.S.,’ but that’s not true,” said Hayatullah. “They’re taking people out of their houses and they’re probably killing them.” 

Hayatullah said that when he learned he could emigrate to the U.S., he called his father to ask whether he should go.

“My dad said, ‘Yes, you should go,’” Hayatullah said. 

His brothers and his father had been jailed a few times and the Taliban had taken their home, said Hayatullah. He said that he brought his family to the house of an uncle and they left from there.

“The Taliban wouldn’t leave us alone.”

Bibi said that she was reluctant to leave, but when the Taliban came to their village she saw many people who were left dead in the streets missing parts of their bodies. After that she overcame her fear and focused on leaving, knowing that her children would be safe in the U.S. 

Bibi said she still sees the images of her village when she closes her eyes. She said she keeps reliving everything the family has been through. 

She said she left behind siblings who were planning weddings and had been looking forward to a number of events. Now she communicates with her family by FaceTime and Whatsapp. 

“It’s just hard to be away from them, and my mother-in-law misses her son and the grandkids, She wants to come here and join [us],” Bibi said. “It’s sad to be away from family. Leaving everyone and everything was very hard.” 


Editor’s Note: Hayatullah and Bibi Nebiah spoke through a translator, Moheba Sayed, who was provided by the Refugee Resettlement Committee. 

To make a donation to the the Refugee Settlement Committee contact the church offices: First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, fccol@fccol.org; Christ the King Church, ctkoldlyme@aol.com; Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church, office@saintannsoldlyme.org.