Afghan Refugee Family Seeks New Roots in Old Lyme

Hayatullah and Bibi Popal's five children. The family fled Afghanistan in 2021 and relocated to Old Lyme, CT. (Emilia Otte / CT Examiner)


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OLD LYME — Nearly two years after arriving in the United States, the Popal family — Hayatullah, Bibi Nebiah and their five children — is looking for a new place to settle along the southeastern Connecticut shoreline. 

The family fled Afghanistan after U.S. troops pulled out of the country in August 2021 and the Taliban quickly assumed control. Hayatullah was a driver for the U.S. Army and left out of fear that the Taliban would target him and his family. 

They arrived in Virginia with their then-four children in September 2021 and remained there a month before resettling in Old Lyme. 

For the last year and seven months, the family has been staying in a house owned by the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. But members of the Refugee Resettlement Committee said they are hoping to find the Popals a new house by July 1, so they can offer the space to another refugee family. 

Committee co-Chair Kathleen Kronholm said finding a space that could affordably house a family of seven is difficult. For the Popals, she said, a rent of $1,400 a month would be “a stretch.” 

Trying to find subsidized housing for the family, she said, could mean one to two years on a waiting list — which is why the Refugee Resettlement Committee is looking for someone local to offer the Popals an affordable option. 

“[In] this area of Connecticut to try to find a rental under $2,500 a month or $3,000 a month is just — it’s not there,” Kronholm said. 

The Popals are the fifth family the group has helped since forming roughly seven years ago, according to Kronholm. The committee previously welcomed families from Syria, Iraq, Congo and Puerto Rico.  

“When the refugees come in, it’s kind of crunch time,” she said, adding that they often have only about five days to find a home for refugees to stay once they arrive.

Kronholm said the committee then helps the refugees with things like finding a job, enrolling the children in school and dealing with any medical needs they may have. 

Hayatullah told CT Examiner through a translator that his biggest challenges when coming to Old Lyme were the language barrier and not having a driver’s license or a car. But he said things had improved over time, and that his children were happy in the area.

Right now, he said, he’s concerned about finding an affordable place to live. He said he would like to live in either Old Lyme, East Lyme or Old Saybrook, but that his preference was Old Lyme because his children were already attending school there. 

“The community here is very supportive,” he said. 

Since his arrival, Hayatullah said he has been working a variety of jobs, painting houses and delivering food for DoorDash and UberEats. Before that, he worked at a Big Y supermarket. 

He has a job lined up as a chef at a restaurant called Curry Queen, which is scheduled to open in Old Saybrook. But Cathy Stevens, a Refugee Resettlement Committee member, said the restaurant’s opening has been delayed. 

‘A positive direction’

On a sunny afternoon in late April, the Popal family gathered in the house they’ve lived in for nearly two years. Bibi cooked in the kitchen, and the couple’s youngest child, 18-month-old Sola, was in the front room playing with a balloon. 

In a back room where a gray couch and embroidered purple floor pillows sat, a coffee table was laid out with cups of tea, nuts, dates and small candies.  

Around mid-afternoon, the school bus arrived and the four older children burst through the back door. Although they came to the U.S. without speaking any English, they quickly picked up the language. 

Twelve-year-old Esmatullah, who is in fifth grade, said he enjoys doing science projects and playing soccer. Nine-year-old Enayatullah, who said he wants to be a doctor, and his 7-year-old sister Ridayah both had their artwork featured in the Lyme Youth Services Bureau Art Show. 

“Their English is very good, better than mine,” Hayatullah said, adding that his children sometimes translate for him. 

Hayatullah and Bibi are also taking English courses, although Bibi said she has struggled because of illness and a car accident that left her with a concussion. 

Kronholm said while the goal is to make sure that families become independent, the language barrier means it will take the Popals extra time.

“These are all just challenges that we work with,” she said. 

Hayatullah said he misses his home in Afghanistan, but that the security situation makes it impossible to go back. 

“Absolutely, I miss it. But now there is no other option,” he said. “It was difficult to arrive here. There were many challenges and problems getting here. But since we are here, life is better — changing to a positive direction.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.