The Power of Sharing a Meal: TMA AmeriCorps VISTA Shares Her Experience Having Lunch with Afghan Refugees

Hi there! My name is Amber Medero and I am a Transform Mid-Atlantic AmeriCorps VISTA who is completing my year of public service with Homes Not Borders. This is a non-profit that offers supportive programs to newly arrived refugees in the DC area, who since August of 2021 are mostly Afghan. Its primary and biggest operation is to set up homes with mostly donated furniture and household items. To give you an idea of the scale on which Homes Not Borders operates, in 2022 alone we provided 500 families with furniture, which was made possible by our incredible staff and volunteers and warehouse space. Although I am more involved in HNB’s other programs which increase their capacity building, there are days when my assistance is required to move dozens of mattresses or to drop off furniture at a family's house.

As anticipated, my aid was needed one Thursday when our Family Service Assistant, Nasser, did not have the help of his usual volunteers from Amazon, as they prepared for the busy holiday season. Once I got to the warehouse we got straight to work. Nasser handed me the packing list for the families we’d be assisting that day which breaks down how many items they get for their household size, crucial information provided by the resettlement agencies. I begin by selecting area rugs, which are taller than me, one for each bedroom, and carrying them to the loading station. Once we were done running around the warehouse gathering the beds, couches, and dining room sets, I took a rest to sit down and to my surprise it was already 11 o’clock. All that was left to be done was to double-check the packing list to make sure we did not miss any smaller items such as kitchenware, bedding, and personal hygiene items, and to call the families to make sure they are home.

During this time, I realized I was hungry so I took the opportunity to quickly eat an early lunch. When I’m working at the warehouse I always make sure I bring lunch because there's nowhere within walking distance to get food. I had thought my two options were to have an early lunch at 11 am or to have a late lunch when I got home at 3 pm because I would not be able to eat in someone's house. In my mind, the family feeding us was not even a thought I had considered. Therefore the choice felt obvious. I did not want to risk becoming lightheaded due to not eating combined with the physical labor, and I was hungry now, so might as well eat now. As I savored my meal, I could feel my energy being replenished, preparing me for the second half of the day. Or so I thought. Once I was done, Nasser signaled we were ready to hit the road. Excitedly, I jumped in the HNB truck. I have never been in a truck like this before and felt so tall, an unfamiliar feeling being only 5’2. Time passed quickly as we drove from Landover, Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia, as we talked and got to know each better.

As soon as we got there, we were warmly greeted by the two Afghan men who were sharing a townhouse. The men helped us carry in the heavier items, while the HNB volunteers and I carried boxes filled with smaller items. Once we finished, the men invited us to stay a little while longer to enjoy food, which we accepted. We sat on the carpeted floor in a circle, since the
dining room table we brought was not big enough for all 6 of us. I wasn’t hungry since I had just eaten but I convinced myself I could go for a little snack. The men came out with handfuls of this pear-flavored energy drink that I’ve never seen before but I happily accepted because I love pears, and can always use the extra caffeine boost. They told us that it is a popular drink in Afghanistan and were excited to find it in the stores here in the US. Next, they brought out an assortment of bread, from which I had the jalebi, a fried spiral bread dipped in a thick sweet syrup. They insisted that I try one of the savory breads, but I was too full and declined.

The generous servings kept coming, as they brought out a kettle with Afghan tea and served us all. The food and beverages were a way for all of us to connect. I got to hear their personal stories of the family, they left behind, their profession in the Afghan Air Force as pilots, and how they aspire to reunite with their families and continue their passion for flying.

In due time we left and made our way to visit the second household in Virginia. On our truck ride, Nasser turns to me and says, “you know Amber, in our culture, it is seen as disrespectful if someone offers you food and you don’t eat it”. Nasser is also Afghan who came to the United States a few years ago and therefore is able to give me these insights that I was unaware of. It was never my intention to come off as rude. If I had known, I wouldn’t have brought lunch and opted for a snack instead. Here in the US, we value our individualism and our boundaries, therefore saying no to food is seen as a simple individual choice and not viewed as rude. I thought about this until we reached our next destination.

Finally, we make it to the apartment nearby and we do everything all over again. The father of the family meets us downstairs at our truck and helps us carry the items into the elevator and then into his apartment. Once we successfully got all the items into his new home, the husband and wife invited us to stay for lunch, which we gratefully accepted. The wife served a big bowl of Kabuli, a rice dish with carrots, raisins, and meat, alongside chutney, homemade bread, and lamb stew. I made myself a plate and indulged myself in the Afghan cuisine that I grew accustomed to since working at HNB. We thanked the family tremendously for their delicious homemade meal and they thanked us in return for all the furniture and household items we
provided them free of charge, as always.

At the end of the day, I went home with a full stomach and heart, knowing that I made a difference in these people's lives. With this opportunity through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, I was able to experience the warm hospitality that Afghans radiate. The following Thursday I did it all over again, except this time I got to enjoy myself and the food more because I intentionally left my lunch at home.

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