In August of 2021, military planes sped down Afghan runways with crowds yelling, pushing, running—every ounce of blood coursing through their veins hoping for the last spot on the last plane.
Afghanistan is a country that has endured decades of violence, war and conflict before it experienced yet another crisis. Its people were once again crying out in the streets.
For a few thousand fortunate Afghans, they were able to finally board a plane to Denver International Airport after months of strenuous paperwork, background checks and security reviews. With their first step outside, they could see the white-capped Rocky Mountains, and for many, the sight reminded them of their own Hindu Kush Range—rolling mountains that they most likely will never lay eyes on again.
They were now being told to start a new life in a country they’d only seen in movies, to learn a language whose letters start on the opposite side of the page and to make a home in a place where their phone chargers won’t even fit the outlets. Everything is different.
This is the story of many of my refugee friends. They’re not all from Afghanistan, but their stories are devastatingly familiar.
Time after time, I’ve heard the pain of uncontrolled loss. Yes, they’ve lost the security of a familiar life—their homes, their families, their jobs—but they’ve also lost the small things of comfort like the ability to visit their hometown over the weekend or catch the small jokes and idioms said under people’s breath. For some, they’ve even stopped dreaming in their native language.
Recently, our team met a woman who used to practice medicine in Afghanistan. She now works at Walmart. I know another woman who used to be the equivalent of the First Lady of her home country. In her first handful of years in Denver, she worked at TJ Maxx.
It’s now decades later, and as I listened to her story over lunch, she looked me in the eyes and said, “Amy, what you do is holy work.”
These women have stared down loss and pain and have decided to simply keep going. Their resiliency and strength is astounding.
A friend once told me that she had to explain to her Afghan friends that Americans aren’t materially poor, but they’re “time poor.” That for Americans, when they give a little of their time, that’s them being generous. This conversation came on the tail of her Afghan friends being hurt by their host family only spending an hour with them for lunch.
I sat on the ground at my Afghan friend’s house drinking tea and eating nuts, candies and cookies. As a self-proclaimed non-lunch eater, I thought this was the lunch they had invited me over for, but after about an hour, my friend got up and started to make rice.
Quickly doing the math, I fired off a few texts to teammates, canceling meetings and rescheduling calls. I could feel my poverty showing.
And here’s the beautiful reality: My poverty shows up often when I’m with my refugee friends.
It’s easy for some people to take a glance at my Afghan, Ethiopian and Iraqi friends’ situations and think that they’re the ones who are “impoverished.” Don’t hear me wrong—refugees have real needs and barriers to access. Their road is long and hard, and the path toward flourishing and restoration is not a quick one. That’s why we do what we do.
But the “others” of the world, they’re not poor—we all are poor.
Poverty is all-encompassing. It’s social, economic, emotional and spiritual. It’s not about bank account figures or houses filled with the latest tech or full closets based on the rotating seasons. It’s loneliness, feeling trapped in a job and anxiety. It’s fitting the status quo or buying something just to buy it. It’s being emotionally unavailable. It’s busyness.
My poverty shows when I’m with my refugee friends. And because of that, I need refugees in my life.
I need to make space to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. I need to sit and drink tea and eat lunch for hours with no notifications clamoring for my attention. I need to let others’ stories impact my own, causing compassion and empathy to rise in my heart and spill out. And I most definitely need to learn how to become “time rich,” investing in that account just as much as my retirement account.
Every week, more Afghans land in Denver. Every week, more people are saying goodbye to all they’ve ever known. They land in this country to find the daunting mountain of starting over looming over them. No words they can speak, no hint of familiar faces—only the shadows of loss and devastation.
But what they don’t know is they’re some of the richest people in town.
Published June 1, 2023