The Afghan men hugged for a long time.
Mirwais Momand had just arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport months after fleeing Kabul, and was finally reunited with his best friend, Sher Mohammad Mulakhail, after three years apart. "It was," Momand said, "a happy moment."
Mulakhail did not have much space in the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife and six children in Bloomington. Yet in keeping with Afghan traditions of hospitality, he invited Momand's family to stay with him over their first few days forging a new life in Minnesota. They had much to say, much to plan.
Afghan evacuees like Momand are gradually leaving American military bases for more permanent homes after escaping their homeland in August as the Taliban returned to power. So far, 359 Afghans have resettled in Minnesota in recent months, and another 280 are slated to come soon.
Mulakhail's eldest daughter, Salma, a high school senior, stayed home to help her mother, Nilofar, cook a feast for their guests. Momand, his wife and their eight children arrived after 10 p.m., and everybody drank tea and ate meatballs and chicken. They stayed up until 3:30 in the morning. Merry and full, all 18 people from two families drifted to sleep, mostly on the floor. At last, Momand felt at home.
"We are like brothers," he said in his native Pashto, his friend interpreting.
'A big party'
They worked together as security guards for the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul, and their families lived nearby in the rural province of Kunar. The men said goodbye in 2018, when Mulakhail left on a Special Immigrant Visa that allows Afghans who served American interests to relocate here for their safety.
Momand was still working for the institute this summer when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. The offices closed and he received notice to leave the country. "Send my wife and children to Kabul," he told his father. As the Momands approached the airport, he feared his family would not find their way out.
"I was worried about my kids and their safety because they were shooting in the air everywhere, but luckily, by the help of God, we were able to make it to the airport gate and I showed my documents and they let me in," Momand recounted.
They went to Fort Pickett in Virginia, joining more than 50,000 Afghan evacuees at military installations around the country. The Momands arrived with only their documents and a pair of clothes after losing four bags of luggage in transit.
They received new outfits at the base. Momand's 11-year-old son Bilal spoke enthusiastically about the camp: He liked the cricket games, toys and playing with American soldiers. But it was also so crowded that Momand waited three hours in line for meals, and there was little privacy.
"When are you coming?" Mulakhail kept asking in their daily phone calls. Momand was finally approved to leave the second week in November with a day's notice, news that brought relief "because it was difficult for me to be at the camp."
In the Mulakhail family's Bloomington apartment, Bashir Mulakhail, 18, liked having so many people because it reminded him of their old country. Sister Noorina Mulakhail, 11, appreciated having more children to play with, and they played hide and seek and made houses out of pillows. Five-year-old Miryam Mulakhail let 7-year-old Asia Momand give her a makeover with lipstick. Noticing their fathers' nonstop chatter, Miryam playfully jabbed, "Blah blah blah blah blah!"
The morning after the Momands' arrival, Nilofar's English tutor, Molly Hauver, dropped by, impressed at all the people crowded inside. "Is this what it looks like in Afghanistan, a big party?" she asked, smiling.
As they sat on the floor drinking tea, Hauver asked who needed what, and recorded the answers on a piece of paper: blankets, shoes, winter coats. She quizzed them about their sizes and promised to bring donated items soon.
Nilofar took the children to the playground, and the young Momands pushed one another on the swings and hurtled down the slides before the biting cold sent them piling back into the car. Later, the Mulakhails bought Momand's wife and daughters dresses at an Indian store. Mulakhail took Momand to the Mall of America and his friend looked around, amazed.
Hauver dropped off pizza from an Afghan-owned shop and the women and children gathered in the living room as a Pashto drama played on TV.
Momand's wife, Zarghona, said with her friends interpreting that she missed her family stuck back home. Her 9-month-old girl Alia will have no memories of Afghanistan, but Zarghona will tell her about her grandfather and other relatives there one day. Asked about her hopes for her family here, she said: "A good life."
Her eldest daughter, Okhkula Momand, nearly 14, said she was sad about the Taliban forbidding girls from going to school, but here they will be enrolled in the next week or two. She is such a talented tailor that her resettlement agency is giving her a sewing machine. She hopes to be a nurse, and her mother dreams her other children will become doctors and teachers.
The usually smiling baby began to cry. They gave babies cow's milk in Afghanistan, but Okhkula put some formula in a bottle and handed it to her mother to give Alia. Zarghona stroked the child's head, soothing her.
A new home
In a back room, a stream of Afghan men poured in, hugging and shaking hands. Among the friends were several new evacuees; one had just arrived from Fort McCoy, Wis. The men traded jokes and played teka, a popular card game in Afghanistan.
Bashir Mulakhail and his father explained the workings of American life to Momand. While children can go out by themselves in Afghanistan, for instance, they warned that in the United States they are expected to be accompanied by adults.
Momand was eager to find a job, but did not have a driver's license, a car or any knowledge of English. Sher Mohammad Mulakhail planned to ask his boss at Walmart if the store had any openings for his friend.
The International Institute of Minnesota, which is resettling the Momands, was racing to accommodate many new arrivals on short notice. Federal authorities initially asked the institute to resettle 100 arrivals last week, and the agency reduced the figure to 30 and rescheduled the rest to give better service.
The agency struggled to find affordable housing for Afghan clients with large families, but managed to secure the Momands half a yellow duplex in St. Paul, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms, near a park and playground.
After four nights with the Mulakhails, the Momands went to their new home.
"This house is beautiful, of course," said Momand, looking around. "But leaving our country behind and everything behind is difficult."
He had built his family home in Kunar out of mud. They made cheese, yogurt and milk from their own cows and ate the crops they harvested. Here, their house was made of wood, they had no land to till, and it cost $1,600 a month – discounted from $2,200 after the landlord learned they were Afghan evacuees.
Mulakhail took Momand to buy groceries at Walmart and Little India. They stocked the refrigerator with flatbread and halal chicken, the cabinets with spices.
Momand tried to adjust to the noises from the heater and the pattering of his children's feet on the hardwood floors. He wanted to put carpet down. One night, wind shook the house so fiercely that he wondered if an earthquake had struck.
His Afghan-American case manager worked with him to start securing food and cash assistance, health insurance, a Social Security card and a work permit. Momand and his wife prepared to enroll in English classes, and the family received instructions about making a budget and adapting to American society. A donor to the institute will pay three months of their rent, and the federal government will issue them $10,000 – a thousand per person – in one-time aid.
"It will be difficult for me to adjust with the culture here but slowly … we will learn," said Momand. "We will continue our life to be on our own feet and live happily."