The Long Welcome: Afghan refugees find new home in the City of Clemson

Almost every night, Norman and Marni McGee receive a phone call from Jawad saying he is coming to their house. Seconds after the phone call ends, there is a knock on the McGee’s door.

“He usually calls when he’s at the front door,” Norman said. “Or I open the door and he’s in the driveway waving at me.”

Jawad is one of the six Afghan refugees that Clemson Presbyterian Church’s Circle of Welcome, with the support of Lutheran Services Carolinas’ New Americans Program, has been helping to resettle in the United States after they were forced to evacuate last August.

When Jawad calls, he says he’s going to ride his bicycle over to “Baba and Bibi’s” home, which means “Grandfather and “Grandmother’s” in Salam.

In the few months they’ve been in the City of Clemson, all six of the refugees have secured employment and housing and captured the hearts of the McGee’s and their neighbors.

The Long Welcome

Norman and Marni, along with other members of Clemson Presbyterian Church, are walking with the refugees every step of the way of the long road to becoming acclimated and established in a foreign country.

They’ve driven them to job applications, found housing, helped them start bank accounts so they can send money back home to their families, made doctor and dentist appointments, and even taught them how to use a washing machine.

Wahed, another refugee, has a second shift job at BorgWarner that is one city over from Clemson. He doesn’t have his driver’s license yet, so volunteers take him to work and pick him up every day.

“We have several volunteers who are taking a nap at 10:30 p.m. and then going to pick him up,” Norman said. “This is totally changing their life and really accomplishing the long welcome.”

Along with the essentials, volunteers have also found ways to have some fun.

Jawad and Wahed ran a Cupid Shuffle 5K with Clemson Mayor Robert Halfacre in February, and they can often be found in a neighbor’s garage using their workout equipment. And even though they were hesitant at first, Norman said the refugees are getting to know and love the family’s dogs as well.

“They all feel like family in different ways,” Norman said.

Norman believes that Jawad, who was a member of the Afghan special forces, comes to his house almost every night because he doesn’t want to be alone. Jawad and Wahed are roommates and since Wahed works second shift, he isn’t there at night.

On a recent evening visit, Marni and Norman were asking Jawad about his home. They pulled out their iPad and showed him a satellite view of the area.

“It was like he was flying an airplane toward his home. He was saying ‘This is the road to my house.’ ‘Here’s my house.’ ‘Here is the ice cream shop near my house.’ He was literally singing like he was walking up to his front door,” Norman said. “My wife and I were both in tears watching him in that moment.”

As for the City of Clemson, Norman believes that the normalcy of having international students living all around Clemson University plus the recognition that the refugees from Afghanistan are here because they helped Americans are the reasons that residents have been so welcoming and willing to do anything to help.

Currently, there are discussions about holding English as a Second Language (ESL) in McDonald’s since so many of the refugees work there.

“It’s a small enough town in a southern city where they recognize what these guys did in Afghanistan for Americans, and they (city residents) know they are here because they helped there,” Norman said. “The average South Carolinian realizes we owe them, and that’s what has been opening all of these doors.”