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A veteran who served in Afghanistan now helps Afghan refugees resettle

Offering Afghan allies a warm welcome

Andrew Overbeek, Independent Living Plus Coach

Afghan refugee boy listens to adult male mentor

Watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban was deeply painful for me. Not only because I’m a veteran who served in Afghanistan, but because I now work with teenage Afghan boys who are resettling in the U.S.

I joined the military at age 20 and during my seven years of service, I was able to experience the cultures and customs in places like Afghanistan and met incredible people who made a permanent impact on my life.

When my enlistment was over and I was discharged from the military, I was drawn to a career where I could continue to help others.

Today, as a social worker with Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, I work with teenage refugee boys who have fled conflict areas like the ones in which I served during my military career. I help them adjust to life in a new country, navigating experiences like gaining employment, managing finances, shopping at the grocery store, and learning to drive a car.

Recently, I’ve heard from Americans who fear for their own safety as Afghan refugees resettle across the country. Some people are afraid that Afghan refugees will harm them or that they will be a drain on community services at taxpayer expense.

From my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The young men I work with have experienced unspeakable trauma. They have witnessed terrorism and violence, lost loved ones, and have been forced to leave everything familiar at a moment’s notice.

Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to flee your home, your family, your friends, and start over in a new country. Yet this is the reality for the young men I work with.

They tell me how grateful they are for the freedom and opportunities here in the U.S. For many, they are safe for the first time in their lives. They are eager to work and become contributing members of our communities.

Last Veteran’s Day, I was humbled to receive this letter from a resettled Afghan teen expressing his gratitude for my service in his country. He wrote:

Dear American Hero,

The only reason we live in a peaceful country that is free is because of you. I want to say thank you for everything you have done to protect your people and your great country. No one really knows what a war veteran has gone through, but we all know you have sacrificed your life for us to be safe and to be able to sleep without being scared. Thank you so much for your sacrifice and bravery. Thank you for placing yourself between us and danger. Thank you to your spouses who find themselves living nomadic lives, often far away from the support of loved ones. Thank you to your children who accept your absence as a way of life and understand they share you with a nation and sometimes the world.

Sincerely, Z

The boys I have mentored have flourished at school, earning awards and recognition for their leadership and kindness. They’ve learned so much in such a short amount of time that it leaves me in awe. When they start their new jobs or leave for college, I am so proud to have walked alongside them in their journey.

But what I am most humbled by is their eagerness to give back to their communities.

This Veteran’s Day, consider talking with a veteran who served in Afghanistan. Ask them about the men, women, and children they met in moments that cut through the tense daily life and revealed our shared humanity.

Without our allies assisting us in their many roles, the mission in Afghanistan would have been much more difficult and dangerous. Most veterans can tell you about someone who helped them through a difficult situation, offered camaraderie during long missions, or shared a traditional meal accompanied by the hospitality of an eager Afghan host.

My hope is that Americans will respond to resettling Afghan refugees and allies with a warm welcome. Every one of us can do something, whether it’s providing transportation, donating household goods, or sharing a meal.

But one of the things that made a difference to veterans like me navigating life in a new country was the kindness and generosity of strangers.

Help refugees begin their new life