VCU Afghan Student Organization officers: Rida Jamal (left), Sadef Osmanzai (back), Waris Bahrami (right) and Yasameen Anwari (front). (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Mobilizing to help Afghans in need

Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, VCU students and graduates of Afghan descent are raising money, donating supplies, assisting refugees and providing information in a chaotic time.

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While information about the U.S. military’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan and the people who fled that country have, for the most part, disappeared from front page news, Virginia Commonwealth University students and graduates of Afghan descent have continued to raise awareness and help fellow Afghans in need.

For Yasameen Anwari, a 21-year-old junior studying health, physical education and exercise science in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban hit close to home.

“It's a sad situation because, while I was born here, my parents are refugees who came from Afghanistan and immigrated back in the 1980s. It's like the whole thing is happening again and it's tough to see your parents live through it twice,” Anwari said. “It was very difficult to constantly see my parents' country on the news 24/7. It takes a toll on you. I was anxious and my mental health was not very good.”

As president of the VCU Afghan Student Organization, Anwari is mobilizing a group of approximately 200 members to raise awareness about the challenges for Afghans, those who have recently arrived in the U.S. and those who have lived here for decades.

Over the years, Anwari and the student group have raised funds and donated thousands of dollars to Aid Afghanistan for Education, receiving thank you notes and photos back from the beneficiaries, girls who for years had been denied education.

More recently, the student group has ramped up its efforts to help those suffering in Afghanistan as well as the tens of thousands of Afghan people the U.S. military brought here, many of whom were staying at military bases like nearby Fort Lee. Many Afghan Student Organization members attended protests this summer in Washington to spread awareness about the turbulent events in Afghanistan and to show that people care about the country. They post regularly on social media about other refugee aid organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee, to inform their own followers about ways to help. Anwari and her Afghan Student Organization leadership team — bioinformatics student Rida Jamal, anthropology student Sadef Osmanza, and biology student Waris Bahrami — also raised funds to purchase winter clothing for Afghan refugees staying at a military base in Wisconsin.

They’re not the only group on campus that is working to help the Afghan people. On Oct. 8, the Muslim Students Association at VCU organized and hosted a charity kickball tournament for Afghans in need, working alongside the Afghan Student Organization, RVA Cares, Penny Appeal USA and United 2 Heal to raise $1,040 for families in Afghanistan who need food packages, water, hygiene kits, shelter and other necessities. Members of VCU's Student Veterans Association worked to gather donations for those temporarily housed at Fort Lee and Fort Pickett, and faculty and students in the School of Dentistry are creating dental supply kits for refugees.

Yasameen Anwari.
Yasameen Anwari. “My parents are refugees who came [to the U.S.] from Afghanistan and immigrated back in the 1980s. It's like the whole thing is happening again. It's tough to see your parents live through it twice.” (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Leadership is a source of confidence

The desire to help extends beyond campus. At the end of August, VCU graduates and former Afghan Student Organization presidents Nazaneen Anwari (Yasameen’s sister) and Yousef Nikzai used their medical and language skills to volunteer at the Dulles Expo Center as medical personnel, triaging Afghan evacuees to make sure they were stable enough to go to their next location.

Nikzai, a medical student at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and founder of the Afghan Student Organization, spoke directly with Afghan people being evacuated by the U.S. military, helping them through what continues to be a jarring and traumatic experience. He aided a 13-year-old boy who — while shielding his mother from the Taliban — was shot in the arm.

“I was able to connect and take care of patients,” said Nikzai, who, like Yasameen Anwari, was raised in Northern Virginia, which has a sizable community of people from Afghanistan. “I think it made it a little bit easier for me to care for the patients and sympathize with them versus other providers who were there.

“These people left every single thing they own and love back home. A lot of them left their husbands. Some children came without their parents, so they just wanted somebody to talk to, to let them know everything was going to be okay, that they’re safe and that we’ll take good care of them.”

Nazaneen Anwari, who graduated in May from the School of Business and currently works as a pharmacy technician and medical assistant, joined the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps when she learned the government needed translators to help communicate with refugees.

“It was crazy and very chaotic [at Dulles Airport],” she said. “But it was beautiful to see how strong these people were, in spite of everything they had gone through. They were so full of hope coming to the U.S. for a better future, although their hearts were heavy.”

“These people left every single thing they own and love back home. … They just wanted somebody to talk to, to let them know everything was going to be okay, that they’re safe and that we’ll take good care of them.”

Yousef Nikzai

Moved to lead and inform

Nazaneen Anwari’s involvement with the Afghan Student Organization had a profound effect on her.

“It shaped me as a person and I feel like being welcomed and accepted by everyone around me really shaped who I am and will be in the future because I developed that self-confidence and that acceptance of my identity and myself,” she said. “I'm able to now be fully myself and serve others.”

This summer, after the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan, Nazaneen Anwari joined other young Afghan American professionals — many of whom are recent VCU graduates like Nikzai and Aneil Tawakalzada, who earned his bachelor’s degree at VCU and is now a medical student at Nova Southeastern University — to put their concerns into action. They formed OneAfghanistan, a website to provide information for those eager to help.

“We were all so eager to get involved to make a difference, but we had no idea how to do it,” Tawakalzada said. “You would see it all over social media. Everyone wanted to give back.”

“We were seeing a lot of people posting a million different things, all over social media — ways you can help and different fundraisers you can donate to, etcetera,” Tawakalzada said. “It was confusing because there was a ton of information all over the place. It was hard to keep track, but more so, you couldn't tell how legitimate some of the things were. People were so desperate to get involved and to donate to places or give clothing or whatever.”

OneAfghanistan’s social media posts have garnered tens of thousands of views by people looking for that information. Tawakalzada and the other OneAfghanistan leaders help make sense of all the information, using their website as a clearinghouse for details on charities, ways to help refugees, protests, petitions and connections to mental health professionals who speak Dari, Pashto and Farsi. Tawakalzada said they feel they are making a difference. And OneAfghanistan is continuing to help Afghans settle by providing mentorships, forming scholarships and presenting workshops on resume writing and job interviews.

Aneil Tawakalzada
Aneil Tawakalzada. His work through OneAfghanistan is helping provide people with information on charities, ways to help refugees, and connections to mental health professionals who speak Dari, Pashto and Farsi. (Courtesy of Aneil Tawakalzada)

Responding to a humanitarian crisis

To continue raising awareness about the ongoing needs in Afghanistan and of newly arrived Afghan refugees, the Afghan Student Organization will hold a Night In Afghanistan event Dec. 3 at VCU in which all proceeds will go to the Richmond office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps people affected by a humanitarian crisis.

“We are showcasing the beauty of Afghan culture and will be having a fashion show conveying traditional Afghan clothes, Afghan dance performance and performers such as a woman reciting Afghan poetry and a flute player,” Yasameen Anwari said. “A local Afghan restaurant in Richmond called Afghan Cuisine will provide food.” 

Yasameen and Nazaneen Anwari are motivated to continue to raise awareness about Afghanistan’s plight and hope the information their groups provide inspires others to join to address the humanitarian issues.

“Anytime there's injustice, if anyone is witness to it, they need to stand up and speak up. Because at the end of the day, we're all human and we all can help one another,” Nazaneen Anwari said. “Otherwise, nothing's going to change in the world.”