Scarlett Syse: Welcome our new Afghan friends with open arms


We’re an unlikely trio.

Me, born and raised in the rolling hills of America’s Midwest. They, born and raised in Afghanistan’s stunning peaks and valleys.

But there we were, together in the middle of a warehouse in the flatlands of Indiana.

Scarlett Syse

For nearly two months, dozens of soldiers, volunteers and veterans have been part of a great humanitarian effort unfolding at Camp Atterbury in southern Johnson County. They’ve been welcoming and giving comfort to more than 6,500 Afghan guests.

Working right by our sides in a donation center have been two Afghan men — our partners. Their presence among us has been a blessing. Our shared tasks are not glamorous. We spend our time sorting socks, toothbrushes and shirts and lifting thousands of boxes into mounds of diapers, baby formula and soap.

Yet what else has risen from those days toiling together is something so precious and special that I worry about sharing it. Can words adequately convey how my improbable friendship with these men has reshaped me? Will I be ridiculed?

I know for sure that we must tell our stories no matter how messy or difficult they may be. Looking into the eyes of other human beings and then listening to their struggles, fears, hopes and dreams are how we reveal our shared humanity.

One wise person once said: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”


To create bridges of compassion, empathy and healing across our significant cultural, racial and religious divides, we must reach out, get uncomfortable and vulnerable, and open our minds and hearts.

And that is what has happened in an Army warehouse about 17 miles from my home and 7,000 miles away from the homes of my new friends.

We tiptoed around each other at first, sharing the same pleasantries you would with anyone you just met. How are you? How is your family? With cellphones in hand, they showed me photos of their homes in Afghanistan and their children — proud dads who have risked everything to keep their young families alive and give them a better life.

Over time, we earned each other’s trust, and the conversations got deeper. I had millions of questions. They never once hesitated to open their hearts, share their lives, shed their tears and laugh out loud when something would get lost in translation or we’d make a joke together. We got so comfortable with each other that no one even blushed as we organized bras and underwear.

Our discussion topics were wide-ranging — the Taliban, Islam, the Quran, the Bible, COVID, food, life on a military base and in America, politics, U.S. foreign policy and more.

“Why would someone join the Taliban?” I asked. My friend’s response was smart and perceptive. “Empty pockets. Empty mind.” Translation: No economic opportunities. No education.

But what became clear early on is what fills the beating hearts of these good and decent men: family.

Their eyes soften, their tears fall, and I can literally feel the deep love and gratitude they have for their loved ones as they talk about them with complete reverence and respect.

Family drives their hopes and dreams.

“I do this all for them (children), not for me,” my friend said of giving up his country, his way of life and everything he has ever worked for.

In Afghanistan, adult children do not raise their voices when speaking to their parents. And once parents reach a certain age, the adult children consider it a duty and honor to take care of them.

“My parents,” my friend said, “are everything that is good. They made me who I am.”

That love carries a searing ache now. They will likely never be able to gather with their parents and extended family again. No birthday parties. No holiday get-togethers. No hugs.

“My parents are glad I am safe and in America,” my friend explained. “They understand. But I am not glad I cannot take care of them. That is what I should be doing.”

With their wives and children in their arms and by their sides, my friends made four harrowing trips to the airport before leaving Afghanistan on a crowded U.S. military plane. They had no idea where they would end up. Each time they tried to escape, their fate was in the hands of the brutal Taliban stationed at checkpoints around the Kabul airport.

My friend was confronted by the Taliban after they rummaged through his luggage.

“What is this?” my friend recounted the Taliban saying, while holding up his computer disk.

Of all my friend’s material possessions, what did he cherish and choose to bring with him? A disk containing videos from his wedding. How lovely is that?

The Taliban threw the disk to the side. My friend stood up to them and picked it back up.

My friends are clear-eyed about the many challenges they and all our Afghan guests are facing. They are aware of the significant trauma they have been through and uncertainty they face in a new land. They shared concerns about loneliness and emotional wounds that can come with unimaginable stress.

One day one son was crying uncontrollably. He finally explained he was sad and upset because he misses his grandmother and the only life he has ever known. My friend did what we would all do to soothe his hurting son — he Facetimed his mom. As always, grandma’s love and special words calmed the young boy.

For the time being, my friend’s parenting approach is to be a friend to his children. When the family gets settled and the children are in school, he’ll go back to the traditional parenting role — teaching discipline, hard work and the value of a good education. For now, though, after so much upheaval, the children just need love, comfort and a friend, he said.

My friends are grateful for how Americans are helping them.

One friend goes back to the base and tells other Afghan guests about the generosity that has greeted him from soldiers, volunteers and veterans.

“I tell them people come to this warehouse and work hard and don’t get paid anything. I think some of them wondered (jokingly) if that (the not getting paid part) is crazy,” he chuckled.

My friends are eager to establish meaningful lives, get jobs, enroll their children in school and better themselves through classes and more education. Eventually, they hope to give back and be a force for good in their new country.

“We want to contribute, to do right by all of this,” he said.

One plea they made to me, and really all of America, was this: “Please be patient with us.”

In return, I asked my friends to be patient with us, too. This resettlement is an immense and difficult undertaking, and none of us will get everything perfectly right. There will be rough patches.

Frankly, some people have questioned why so many help strangers from a faraway place.

My answer is easy. I am a human being. My faith is unambiguous and tells me to run to those who can do nothing for us, to the least among us regardless of their identity. Many of the world’s major religions profess that.

What are our lives for if not to lift up the most vulnerable, to show love, compassion and kindness even when it is hard and even when you are criticized? Faith without action is hollow.

Maybe you can’t sort coats in a warehouse. But what you can do is even more important.

When our Afghan friends arrive in your community and schools, welcome them. Sponsor a family. Invite them over for dinner. Accept their invitations. Bring them to your community festivals and basketball games. Listen to their stories. Share yours.

When someone says something ugly and mean about them, do the right thing. Stand up for them. Be the good.

Right now, our Afghan partners can’t give us anything that society values — fame, fortune, power and access to power.

What they can and will give us are better than all of that. They will be our friends. They will bring a richness and value to our communities and society. We will learn so much from them and discover new truths about ourselves.

How do I know that? Because those are the priceless gifts they have already given me.

To my two new friends, it has been the honor of my life getting to know you. You have been through the most desperate of human experiences, demonstrating incredible courage in an effort to give yourself and your family a good life. I am in awe of you.

America is your home now. You belong here, and we are fortunate and grateful that you are with us and a part of us. With arms wide open, welcome my friends.

Scarlett Syse formerly was editor of the Daily Journal in Johnson County.