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Hugo and Kamil, both 2, play basketball with Viktor Chepras. (Photo by Joshua Huston)

Local families open their homes and hearts to help refugees

We talked to refugee families and their volunteer hosts. We heard stories of connection and hope.

There are many reasons people leave their homeland to move to the United States. But few are more compelling than one’s life depending on political asylum or one’s country being engulfed in war. 

Since the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, nearly 3,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in the Puget Sound area, many of them targets of the Taliban now in power in Afghanistan. And Washington state has received thousands of Ukrainian refugees over the past 12 years, making it a welcoming destination for those who have fled the country since the start of Russia’s invasion in February.

It becomes the job of resettlement organizations like World Relief Seattle, based in Kent, and Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Tacoma to secure temporary housing for refugees arriving at Sea-Tac International Airport until a more permanent situation can be arranged. But, it is volunteer families throughout the region who make fleeing families feel at home here.

By providing a temporary landing place in their homes, mother-in-laws and Airbnb accommodations, local families are not only helping refugees navigate their new world, they are establishing lasting friendships across cultures. 

We talked to refugee families and the volunteer families hosting them. What we heard were stories of connection and hope that celebrated all.

Toddlers without borders

Four parents, two kids, one big hope for lifelong friendship

Two-year-olds Hugo and Kamil have a fairly typical friendship in the Montlake neighborhood of Seattle. The pair like to excitedly race toward each other, one might give the other a light shove and then they settle in to play with their beloved Hot Wheels cars.

But unlike many budding friendships among toddlers, these toddlers are from different countries and speak different languages. They were introduced in February after Kamil and his parents escaped Ukraine and eventually made it to the U.S., where they are being hosted by Hugo’s family.

“I think the children do not even think about the fact that they are from different countries,” Viktor Chepras, Kamil’s father, wrote through WhatsApp messaging. “They have fun in the place.”

For four years, Chepras and his wife, Natalia Chepras, tried to immigrate to the U.S., after facing what he describes as religious oppression. They ended up getting out just as Russia invaded their homeland.

Through the humanitarian organization World Relief, they were connected with Ariel Dodson and her husband, Brad, who opened the studio apartment in their basement to the young Ukrainian family.

Dodson says that, growing up, her family hosted many exchange students, and in 2015 she spent two years helping refugees in the Czech Republic. When she and her husband were able to find a house with an apartment, she says they knew it would be dedicated to hosting refugees.

“We saw a need and we felt like God was telling us to meet this need, because He gave us the means to do so,” says Dodson.

She attended a day-long training session on hosting refugees offered by World Relief. Dodson and her husband were background checked and the organization toured their home.

A few months later, after learning they would be hosting the Chepras, Dodson consulted her close friend, who is Ukrainian and a cashier at a European food market, about the types of foods to buy for the family. She selected such staples as cucumbers and tomatoes, along with Borscht and dumplings from the region. She also laid out toys and books with lots of pictures in the apartment.

“When they got to our house, Russia had already invaded,” says Dodson. “So they definitely miraculously escaped.”

The families have since become very close, sharing meals together or going to the park most days. Their young boys mimic each other’s languages, with Kamil saying “bye bye” and Hugo saying the phrase in Russian, “poka-poka.” (The Chepras family speaks Russian and Ukrainian).

Dodson says Hugo may initially be sad when the family finds their own home, but she doesn’t think that will be the end of their relationship:

“We honestly don’t think that they’ll be out of our life. We feel like they’ve become friends.”

-Hallie Golden

[ Related: How to get your kids involved in helping recent arrivals to the U.S. ]

Six-year-old Chance Millan, his mother Bethany Brosky and sister Noa (3 months) visit with former Afghan house guest Zak. (Photo by Joshua Huston)

“If we can, we have to”

Queen Anne family gets as much from the refugee hosting experience as they give

If there is one thing parents Bethany Brosky and Jake Millan want to teach their three children, it is to live their values. Offering a comfortable landing space to newly arrived refugees is one way this Queen Anne family is doing just that. It’s an action that teaches their kids not only to help others in need but to take responsibility for one’s actions – even if those actions are taken by one’s government in a country 7,000 miles away.

Brosky  felt an “overwhelming guilt” when the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years of military presence, potentially stranding helpers to the American military and others likely to be targeted by the Taliban. 

“I thought, if we can, we have to contribute in a positive way to helping them,” Brosky says. 

When the refugee resettlement program at World Relief sent out a call for hosts — people willing to provide temporary housing to some of the roughly 3,000 refugees expected to arrive in the Puget Sound area — Brosky felt compelled to respond. The small apartment space above the family’s garage was empty. It didn’t take much to convince Millan to use the space to serve others. 

Their first guest, Zak, arrived last fall and stayed two months as resettlement officials worked out permanent housing. Brosky and Millan have been so impressed with World Relief’s non-sectarian relief efforts they have also signed up to provide very short-term (often just a few days) shelter to detainees released from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s facility in Tacoma. ICE detainees are often sent out the door of the detention center with no money or shelter, and sometimes poor or no English skills. A couple days of shelter allows them to make connections for a more permanent plan.

Brosky and Millan have two young sons, Chance (age 6) and Guss (age 3). They welcomed their daughter Noa into the family in March. The family’s over-the-garage accommodation is framed through the large bay windows of their kitchen, dining room and living room, its entry about 10 feet from their back door. They see their guests. Their guests see them. 

But rather than being worried about family safety with strangers on the premises, Millan and Brosky say they are more concerned about how their guests are feeling and getting by as strangers in this strange land. They trust the refugee vetting process and have been humbled by the gratitude and tenderness of their guests. More importantly, they say hosting is a choice with two-way benefit. 

“I very much think it has enriched our lives in ways that I had not anticipated,” Brosky says. “Especially in opening up the world, truly, to our children.” For example, 6-year-old Chance’s awareness of the world now includes a place called Afghanistan and Afghani food prepared by Zak. 

“It’s part of how he’s interpreting the world now.”

The family, in turn, introduced Zak to Thanksgiving and Christmas at Jake’s parents’ home. Not to mention the basics of living in a Pacific Northwest city – including how to separate waste into trash, recycle and compost. 

“It is very, very different from what we had in Afghanistan,” says Zak. “I am going to live here for the rest of my life and I need to know these things.” 

Further, Brosky says of the exchange, “Meeting Zak very much shifted my opinion about what we did in Afghanistan, and I am grateful for that.” She learned from him that America’s pull-out of Afghanistan was part of a bigger story: decades-long U.S. military presence in his home country allowed thousands of girls to gain education and him to go to college. 

Inspired by Brosky and Millan, Zak plans to pay it forward by assisting others. And, as the possibility of an inflow of Ukrainian refugees grows, Brosky and Millan plan to keep their door open.  

“If we can help people along their journey, I think that is a pretty amazing thing,” Brosky says. “We might not get to know them that well if it’s a short stay, but just being able to be part of the process to help them reunite or connect with people where they can land longer term feels good.”

-Cheryl Murfin

The Rehimi sisters, Moqadas (right) and Sadaf (left) are trying to get their brother to the U.S. (Photo by Joshua Huston)

Their brother’s keepers

Tukwila teens work to bring their brother safely to U.S.

Two years after teenage sisters Moqadas and Sadaf Rehimi fled Afghanistan with their mother to start a new life in Tukwila, they have taken on a new life-changing challenge: Helping their beloved brother and his wife join them in the Pacific Northwest.

“When we go into school, we are just thinking about my brother,” says Moqadas, 16, who interprets for the family. “We are just working hard. When he come here, my shoulder going down… I just relax.”

The sisters entered the U.S. through a Special Immigrant Visa along with their mother, Mahboba Rehimi, after her job as a security guard for the U.S. embassy in Kabul made them potential Taliban targets. Their brother, Sohrab Sonil, 27, stayed behind.

Last summer, the Taliban took control of the country. Sonil, who also worked at the embassy as a security guard, traveled every night with his wife to the airport to try to flee. But, Moqadas explains, the huge crowds kept them on the ground. The couple have since fled to Pakistan. 

But Moqadas says her brother and sister-in-law are still in danger and aren’t able to work because they don’t have a work permit. They are trying to get into the U.S. via humanitarian parole.

Moqadas, whose father died when she was one year old, says her brother has filled that role for her. 

“He’s like a father for our family too,” she says.

She and Sadaf, both juniors in high school, have been busy learning English while working toward college. Moqadas hopes to be a lawyer, Sadaf, 17, a nurse. After school, they spend their time working at McDonald’s in order to make money to send to their brother.

Last summer, after learning about state government in school, they decided to drive with their mother to Olympia to advocate for their brother’s case. Although the capitol building was largely empty, they found a security guard who explained who their congressman was and how to get in touch.

The moment Moqadas was back home, she called U.S. Rep. Adam Smith’s office. She says she soon received an email from the congressman offering his help. 

She and Sadaf have also joined advocates pushing for the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which could help people who come to America via humanitarian parole to get permanent residency and citizenship. 

Moqadas says the Tukwila family has been able to talk twice a week to the couple in Pakistan. But the two years they’ve spent cut off from Sonil and his wife has been very difficult for the family.

“For my mom it is difficult because we are just alone,” says Moqadas. “Other people, they are living with husband, wife, family, their kids. They are like a family… And now we need my brother here.”

-Hallie Golden

help refugees

The Mahis family, (left to right) Zuhal, Mastoorah, Nabi, Mursal, Mohammad, Tamkin and Frohar, outside their house in Lacey. (Photo by Joshua Huston)

“Standing by our own feet”

Olympia couple hosts Afghan family of seven

When Mohammad Mahis arrived in front of a two-story home just outside Olympia last winter, with his wife, teenage brother and four young daughters, he says he finally felt like he could relax.

The family had been traveling for weeks, first squeezing onto a military plane without any belongings with hundreds of others to escape Afghanistan, where the Taliban had taken control. They then flew to Germany, followed by Washington, D.C. and on to a military base in New Mexico.

While there, Mahis, a former translator for the U.S. Army in his homeland, worked out a plan for the family to settle in Washington State, where his former supervisor lives and would be able to assist the family in their transition. The social services organization Lutheran Community Services Northwest found a couple willing to host their large family until more permanent housing could be arranged.

It was late on a Friday morning in December when all seven of them stepped into Kaisa and Darian Lightfoot’s home. The family found the entire daylight basement made up for them, including a crib, car seats, a stroller and a high chair. Mahis says he remembers the Lightfoots playing with his children, between the ages of 2 and 8, and taking the family to the grocery store.

“We didn’t feel we are immigrants, we felt like we are guests,” says Mahis. “And so this [was] kind of like our home.”

The two families quickly fell into a routine. In the early evenings, the Lightfoots would help the children and Mahis’s wife, Mastoorah Mahis, learn the English alphabet and basic phrases. They then would all come together for dinner, which Mastoorah Mahis typically cooked. Sometimes it was such Afghani foods as the rice dish Pulao or the stuffed pastry Sambosa, while other times it was the pizza and enchiladas the Lightfoots introduced to the family. And then, later in the evenings, the families would sit down to discuss their different cultures.

Kaisa Lightfoot says she was struck by how open-minded the Mahis family was, especially when it came to the fact that the Lightfoots are gay.

“Anytime they would introduce us to somebody else, they would say, ‘This is Kaisa and Darian and they’re such a great couple,’” says Kaisa Lightfoot. “Just so open-minded, so loving.”

When Mahis’ brother turned 18 soon after the family arrived, the Lightfoots threw his first-ever birthday party. They surprised him with a cake and showered the whole family with clothes and gift cards donated from their friends and neighbors.

In February, the family was able to move into their own house in Lacey. But the two families have stayed connected, sharing meals at each other’s home every week. Mohammad Mahis says he will never forget how much the Lightfoots helped his family:

“Now we are standing by our own feet. But still, we think without them we were nothing.”

-Hallie Golden

Heather Roberts (middle), fiancé Kevin, and daughter Amelia with pictures of Roberts’ “little sister” Anna Mazuryk. (Photo by Joshua Huston)

An exchange sister’s helping hand

Family works to bring ‘little sister’ and her son back to the PNW

Sixteen years ago, Heather Roberts’ parents hosted a high school girl from Ukraine.

This spring, with Russian troops suddenly attacking the country, Roberts began pushing to get her student exchange “little sister” Anna Mazuryk, 31, and Mazuryk’s 6-year-old son Mark away from their war-torn homeland and here to Roberts’ Snoqualmie home.

“We want her here because we can help her here,” Roberts says. “If something happens to her husband, if something happens to her parents, she’s going to need some emotional support.”

Every morning and evening, the exchange siblings talk by video conferencing or messenger. First it was about Mazuryk, her son and husband getting from Kiev to her parents’ home in western Ukraine. And then, as the situation continued to deteriorate, the conversation turned to the family traveling to Poland, a notion that Roberts says terrified Mazuryk. 

Roberts, who is a diving coach, says at that point she switched into “coach Heather mode.” She encouraged her friend through Facebook messenger: “You can do this. You came all the way to America as a 15-year-old … as a child, basically. If you can do that, you can do this.”

On March 3, Mazuryk and her son made it to Kraków, in southern Poland where they were able to stay with Roberts’ family friends. 

“I’m very lucky that I had a chance to go to another place and stay here where I am,” Mazuryk said via Facebook messaging. “We are safe and we are very lucky. But I feel so bad about those people who couldn’t leave.”

Mazuryk has been told American Embassy appointments won’t be available until at least fall. And even if she gets an appointment, there’s no guarantee she will be granted a visa to get to the Pacific Northwest home Roberts shares with her fiancé and daughters Ellie (15) and Amelia (15). Still, Roberts, whose own family has roots in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine, remains hopeful.

She’s cleared out a room in her home for Mazuryk and her son and has plans to buy a car-shaped bed for the boy. A GoFundMe campaign Roberts started has raised more than $4,500. And she shows her own teens pictures of Mazuryk and her son to help them navigate what is happening in Ukraine. 

She puts it simply, she says:

“Helping Anna, that’s our way to help make a little difference in the world.”

And, Roberts points out, sisters stick together:

“She’s my little sister. She doesn’t need to be blood to be family.”

-Hallie Golden