How an Afghan-American joined a startup to help Afghans who left everything behind…

Serina Khan | The Khansultant & Co.
NeedsList
Published in
6 min readDec 13, 2021

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We are all familiar with snippets of this story. That dreaded phone call. Kabul was sold or as the news put it “Kabul fell.” My partner had just arrived from Afghanistan a few weeks prior having worked for the U.N. for three years as a network engineer. His brother-in-law worked for USAID for seven years. They all lived in one household and suddenly we were faced with the fact that the lives of his parents, his eight siblings, and their five children were at risk.

U.S. Air Forces and U.S. Marines guide qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Afghanistan, August 21, 2021. US Air Force | Reuters

My eldest sisters-in-law were frantically packing bags, preparing to travel with five children under the age of five. We were speaking over Face-time. “Leave everything behind!” I yelled over the call several times to them. Like any mother, she was trying to pack baby formula, diapers, clothing, and toys. She kept telling me over the phone that they need these items and I repeatedly told her that anything she would need will be provided to her once she lands here. After all, as an American citizen who understood the value of our allies and those who served alongside our military, that is what I had believed. Looking back — perhaps many of us were naive enough to think that yes, maybe they won’t be provided with a home right away, or a car, but at least their basic needs would be covered once they arrive.

My partner, Ali, with his family back in Kabul. He arrived here a few weeks before Kabul Fell. 50,000 Afghan arrivals like our family are here and we can help them now. Faces blurred for safety.

Unfortunately most of our family members could not make it even past the airport gates in Kabul during those dreadful nights, but tens of thousands of Afghan Evacuees did make it out. All arrived with barely any clothes on their backs and were taken to safe havens across the nation. Winter was coming and reports of the lack of winter coats at bases, shortage of baby formula, basic hygiene needs, and more started to spread. There was a tremendous influx of refugees, evacuees, and allies who left everything behind to fight for a chance at freedom, yet their basic needs could not be met. Our Afghan-American Community, who has been resettling their own family members over the last 20+ years, truly stepped up and started collecting donations. Veteran organizations and VSOs alike started assisting in corporate outreach and providing manpower to get donations to bases. Resettlement agencies who had been drained of staff and funding over the last few years, suddenly faced the grappling reality of having to resettle over 50,000 people, with even more coming, when just the year before they only resettled a few thousand. Word started spreading of different organizations wanting to find solutions to this enormous challenge. Yet there was no streamlined way or platform where organizations and the private sector could coordinate to get basic needs met.

One hundred babies have been born to Afghan women living in temporary housing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. Barbara Davidson/Reuters

Coming from a career in tech and film, I was frustrated with what I was witnessing until I engaged with my dear friend Joseph Azam who sits on the board of the Afghan-American Foundation regarding getting more in-kind donations to U.S. bases being used as safe havens for our newly arrived neighbors. Having co-launched Welcome.US, a new national initiative built to unite, inspire, and empower the American people to welcome and support those seeking refuge here, our team partnered with Needslist to launch an initiative called the Welcome Exchange. The problem we were looking to solve? Grass-root community organizations needing in-kind goods for newcomer and corporations wanting to donate goods but not knowing where to start whilst also not having insights on what is needed where. Thus came along an incredible first-of-its-kind technology tool called the Welcome Exchange, an online portal to match businesses who are willing and able to give support and resources to specific local needs. The Welcome Exchange is powered by NeedsList, a tech company founded by Natasha Freidus and Amanda Levinson five years ago in response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and powers faster, more sustainable humanitarian action. Over the last three+ months cofounders Tasha, Amanda, and the rest of the Needslist Team have been leading amazing design sessions, strategic partnerships, and assisting in outreach to the private sector and public sector alongside myself and the rest of our Welcome.US team. As the project manager of the Welcome Exchange, and an Afghan-American it has been extremely fulfilling being part of this project and national initiative.

The most extraordinary part of this entire project has been the impressive team behind it. We have Alan Khazai, Iranian-American leading outreach on the corporate end, Natasha and Amanda supporting the rollout based on their five years of direct experience in this space, plus myself who unfortunately was the only woman of color and Afghan-American on our launch team. I am honored to have a seat at the table as an Afghan-American supporting getting needs met across the bases and in local cities nationwide and hope that more individuals with lived experience can be included in designing and launching these type of initiatives.

Today, I am proud to be part of the official launch of Welcome.US and the Welcome Exchange — a first-of-its kind online portal to match businesses who are willing and able to give support and resources with specific local needs as defined by nonprofits and resettlement groups.

The Welcome Exchange interface. Learn more at welcome.us/exchange.

The Welcome Exchange is designed to address the problem of businesses wanting to help but not knowing how to best direct their time and resources, and I’m excited to be part of this effort to ensure that contributions are directed to where they are needed most. We pushed the platform live in September of 2021 and to date, there are nearly 300 postings asking for hundreds of thousands of needs, ranging from diapers and mattresses to hygiene and housing. I’ve been happy to speak to major brands including CVS, Starbucks, P&G, Hasbro, Serta Simmons Bedding, and many more who have committed almost three million dollars of in-kind donations, even ahead of the launch.

3 out of the 5 children in our families, who were all left behind. Faces blurred for safety. Their parents worked for USAID for 7+ years. Thousands of children like them are here, on bases, and being resettled today. You can make a difference by visiting welcome.us/exchange to learn more.

Even though we were not able to get my partner’s siblings and their small children out yet and there are thousands of families like ours who are left behind, I know that we have built the first-of-its-kind tool to allow for needs of newly arrived Afghans to be met quickly, efficiently, and with dignity. The Welcome Exchange is live, all we need is for corporations to continue to generously donate in-kind products and services through the Welcome Exchange and Resettlement organizations to continue to post their needs and claim offers. Just last week we had CVS commit over $300,000 of in-kind donations for diapers, baby bottles, feminine hygiene products, and more of the kinds of products mothers like my sister-in-law did not have time to pack.

As impossible as it may seem, I hope that once we are able to evacuate the rest of our family members, who served alongside our country, I have at least done everything in my power to keep my promise of their needs being met. If you are like me and have felt helpless over the last few months and thinking of ways to get involved please know that the American public is a huge part of this effort, as they can reach out to the companies they work for and ask them to welcome our Afghan neighbors by donating in-kind products, or have their own small businesses join the Welcome Exchange to meet needs.

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Serina Khan | The Khansultant & Co.
NeedsList

A someone in the making who works in tech, entertainment, and film via @thekhansultants