The more Philadelphia real-estate investor Alexa Ragsdale heard about the hardships facing Afghan evacuees, the more she grew upset.
And the more she became determined to help.
On Wednesday, as the nation prepared to pause for its annual November ritual of thanks and appreciation, she presented a newly arrived Afghan family with what they needed most: a place to live.
Ragsdale welcomed the five-member Muniri family to a rowhouse she owns on Tudor Street in Northeast Philadelphia, guaranteeing them safe, clean, and affordable housing for the next year. She’s assuming the risk of the cost.
“It gives me a feeling that everybody’s taking care of me and my family,” said Sayed Mushtaq Muniri, 56, who worked 17 years for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. “I’m not alone here.”
He and his wife Mahjobai, 58; daughter Saharnaz, 25; son Sayed Samiurahmani, 21; and daughter Basira, 18, arrived shortly after 8 a.m. at the newly renovated, three-bedroom brick home in the Holmesburg section.
Ragsdale and her husband and children waited to welcome them. Other friends came too. So did the Afghan community members who painted and patched to ready the home.
The kitchen counter quickly filled with oranges, bananas, warm paratha bread, and tea that came all the way from Afghanistan. People brought house plants as gifts. And a sheet cake, inscribed, “Welcome home.”
Everyone gathered in the living room.
“A warm welcome,” Ragsdale said to the family, “to the United States, to Philadelphia, and most of all to your new home.”
She explained a little of the meaning and tradition of Thanksgiving, how on Thursday, Americans would stop, reflect, and consider the people and circumstances for which they’re truly grateful.
“We certainly give thanks for our blessings,” she said, “and extend them to you all.”
Then Muniri addressed the group, his words translated from Dari to English.
“I would like to welcome you to your house,” he said. “You are welcome any time. This is our culture. You just knock on the door.”
In August, his family’s life in Afghanistan disappeared in days.
The Taliban takeover hurtled them out of their homeland, as those who worked for the Americans faced fresh danger.
The air evacuation of Kabul took the family to a first-stop center in Qatar. Ten days later they were flown to the United States, then transferred to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, one of the eight U.S. military installations that together house about 50,000 Afghans.
They spent more than two months there in “Liberty Village,” the temporary home of 11,100 Afghans who await clearances and approvals for resettlement. In mid-November the family was able to leave the base, and since then have lived in a Philadelphia hotel while waiting for reliable housing.
“It’s a new place, so we’re a bit unfamiliar with the culture, the society,” said eldest daughter Saharnaz, who learned English while studying American literature at Kabul University. “But we are happy.”
The federal government may eventually reimburse Ragsdale the price of a few months rent. And the Muniri family might be able to pay something as they find jobs.
But if not, she said, that’s OK, and the house won’t cost them a dime.
“I’m just a person,” she said, insisting she did nothing special. “I have a sense of trying to help the underdog.”
A home represents a huge step forward for evacuated Afghan families. Here and around the nation, the dearth of ready and affordable housing hampers the federal government’s ability to move people off the bases.
“The issue of availability is seismic,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, executive director of Nationalities Service Center, which is working to resettle 500 Afghans in Philadelphia. “Of all the things we’re dealing with right now, housing is the most challenging.”
The Northeast has become the heart of the city’s growing, 700-member Afghan community, concentrated in the Mayfair and Oxford Circle areas.
Muniri worked in the U.S. embassy for USAID, the big development agency, in its communications and records section. The agency secured places for the family aboard a packed evacuation flight. They left carrying only spare shoes and a few clothes.
“They need our support and for us to welcome them,” said Mohammad Sadiq Sadeed, who came to the Northeast two years ago after working as an interpreter for USAID, where he knew Muniri.
Sadeed told the family to list him on government forms as their “American tie,” enabling them to resettle in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, as summer turned to fall, Ragsdale watched the scenes of desperate Afghans trying to get inside the Kabul airport and out of the country.
“I spent two weeks in August crying,” she said.
She figured she was no authority on international resettlement — but perhaps on operating single-family rental homes. She owns Ariel Capital Pennsylvania, which in turn owns properties in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Unable to reach managers at overwhelmed aid agencies, she started writing down the names of Afghans she saw interviewed in the newspaper or on television. That included Sadeed, who has worked endlessly to help Afghans who come to the U.S.
“I called him out of the blue,” Ragsdale said. “‘Maybe you think I’m a crazy woman, but I’ve got some ideas of how to help.’”
They met, talked, and planned.
Ragsdale doesn’t intend to stop with one house. She’s working on two more properties that could be used by second and third Afghan families. The problem, she said, is proceeding one house at a time is slow and expensive.
Her plan: Start a nonprofit that can arrange a year of housing for at least 10 families. She intends to call it HeArt House, envisioning a future connection to Afghan art.
The group would raise funds from the government, private donations, grants, and from the families themselves, once they’re working. It would engage directly with landlords — presumably attracted by the certainty of payment and the assurance of reliable tenants.
She needs to find an attorney who is skilled in nonprofit work and wants to help.
In the meantime she’s created a website where people can click on an Amazon Wish List link to donate household items directly to the Muniri family.
Their move-in date is Dec. 1, their new home located within walking distance of shops, public transportation, and a mosque.
“We want to start our new life as soon as possible,” Muniri said, “start a new job, and new education.”