“This Cause is Personal to Every One of Us”: An Exchange with Fresh Start Refugee Assistance Center

An Exchange with Fresh Start Refugee Assistance Center

Fresh Start is a non-profit organization in Northern Virginia run by Afghan-American women of diverse backgrounds and dedicated to helping support newly arriving Afghan families. Refugees International’s deputy director for the Americas and Europe Yael Schacher interviewed Fresh Start case manager Monica Hesham and members of the organization’s board about its mission, history, and current work. Board members include Neelab Yousafzai, a governance and operations specialist in the non-profit sector; Maryam Rashid, a consultant on international development; Mora Farhad, a development finance and technology specialist at World Bank Group; Marjan Darab, a physician’s assistant; and Zainab Nazary, a clinical pharmacist.

Yael: What is Fresh Start’s origin story?

Neelab: In 2017, I started Fresh Start to serve refugees in the DMV area. Our goal was to help the resettlement process for families. Some of our earliest efforts included organizing donation drives, offering mentorship, childcare, employment assistance, cultural orientation. Fresh Start provides assistance well beyond time limits set for support by resettlement agencies, which we work with closely. We also provide supplemental services and connect with other organizations to develop workshops and with companies to do skills training. Our approach has always been holistic; we believe in long-term mentorship and a continuous relationship that provides families the support they need to succeed.

Maryam: One of our earlier efforts in the resettlement process involved a family that we have been assisting since 2017 who recently purchased a home in Richmond, VA. We have learned through all our experiences that these individuals are highly motivated but need some support and guidance to help them get started. Our team is unique, because of our cultural background and personal experiences with similar life situations, we can really connect with these families and offer them educational and valuable knowledge on how they, too, can rebuild a life in America. That is our goal, to offer effective services through personal and meaningful connections. We hold onto these connections, because we understand resettling into a new home and building a new life takes time, and Fresh Start makes sure we can offer assistance to the families at any time.

Yael: Can you describe some of your work with Afghan families since the start of Operation Allies Welcome this summer?

Maryam: Fresh Start has been involved since day one when Afghans arrived at Northern Virginia Community College. As a team we were able to help the new arriving families with immediate needs like fresh clothes and shoes, hot meals, and translation. Since then, we have done donation drives for winter gear and home furnishings, helped families find and move into apartments, and accompanied and translated for families at doctor’s appointments and legal offices. We are in the process of creating an informational booklet to distribute to the families that provides basic information such as how to use public transportation, how to call 911 in an emergency, basics of banking and finances, healthcare and medical insurance. We are also building a program with one of our partners, Operation Code, that will offer software development training to potential Afghan candidates. We continue to build our partnerships and programs with a focus on the needs of the individuals we have met and worked with.

Yael: What kinds of challenges are newly arriving Afghans facing? And what kind of challenges are small, local, Afghan-American led organization’s like yours facing? What are your plans?

Zainab: The number one challenge newly arriving Afghans are facing is the inconsistent or wrong information being shared; this causes confusion and frustration. The second most difficult challenge is the economic process of obtaining housing. The unfortunate challenge our, and many other, Afghan-American led organizations are facing is the lack of funding. We just received our 501c3 status, so in the coming weeks, we will focus on raising funds and hiring case managers and social workers. We hope to help resettlement agencies accelerate the process of moving vulnerable families off military bases. We are also working on partnerships with like-minded organizations to implement vital education and cultural competency programs that will help families thrive in their new lives.

Yael: Can explain what motivates you to do this work and what makes your organization distinctive?   

Monica: This cause is personal to every one of us at Fresh Start. We are all either first- or second-generation Afghan refugees. So we relate to those we are assisting: we have been in their shoes before. I was born and raised in Kabul. When the war escalated in 1992-1993, my family hid in sewers in Kabul for 42 days trying to escape rockets and bombs. We fled to Pakistan by foot and by bus. Just like the Afghan refugees we are seeing now, my parents had nothing. We lived with relatives and in refugee camps and survived because of money we received from our uncles in the United States and Europe. We reached the United States on November 14, 1999. I will never forget that day. I will never forget the first lit-up Christmas trees I saw at JFK airport. I was 14 years old. Much like these refugees we see now, we were completely lost. A family of six, with no money and barely any support. But we were so happy to finally be safe. We were blessed enough to have our relatives help us with finding jobs for my parents, housing, school and eventually we were able to stand on our own feet. Throughout all that time, we all continued to work and go to school at the same time.

I know how hard it is to not have much assistance when you first arrive to a new country, when you can’t speak the language. I want to hug each and every one of these Afghans and tell them, “Everything will be okay.” They just want some peace and normalcy, and we will do what we can to help provide that to them.

PHOTO CAPTION: Fresh Start Refugee Assistance Center running a local donation drive at Walter Reeds Pediatric Department for Afghans on the military bases. Photo Credit: Fresh Start Refugee Assistance Center.