As the Wardak family arrived at Ann Wittman’s home, she warmly greeted them at the door, embracing their children.
“Welcome to my house,” she beamed. “I’m so glad you came.”
The Wardaks of Afghanistan had been in St. Louis barely two months when they were invited to their first Christmas party, hosted by their new American friends, Ann and Frank Wittman, at their home in Ellisville.
With smiles abounding and wonder in their eyes, Farid and Fahima Wardak and their five children surveyed the Wittmans’ home, brimming with family and friends, a Christmas tree with plenty of gifts tucked underneath, a football game on the large screen television and a kitchen full of food.
“This is a Christmas party — this is how we roll,” Ann Wittman grinned. “A lot of food. A lot of family. And a lot of friends.”
The Wardaks fled Afghanistan earlier this year following the Taliban’s takeover in August. Farid and Fahima Wardak and their children, ages 1-8, were on one of the last flights out of Kabul, fleeing with the clothes they were wearing and personal documents. Fahima Wardak is expecting their sixth child in early January.
Farid Wardak served in the special forces, working alongside American troops. The United States and its allies began evacuating thousands of at-risk Afghans after the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government in Kabul in August, following the withdrawal of U.S. and other troops.
Cousins Ann Wittman, of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin, and Delia Andrews, of Ste. Genevieve du Bois Parish in Warson Woods, met the family in mid-November after Wittman saw a call for help on Welcome Neighbor STL’s Facebook page
“Something popped up that they had these two families with small children with specific kid-related needs,” Wittman said. With the help of some close friends and family, she collected clothing, shoes and toys and contacted the organization. A translator met up with Wittman at the Wardaks’ apartment in Affton.
“We had tea and sat on the rug in their apartment,” Wittman recalled. “We had this instant connection with the dad; I felt like we could really help them.”
Wittman later enlisted the help of friends from Holy Infant to provide for more of the family’s tangible needs — more clothing and shoes, school supplies (the older children started elementary school in the Affton School District), a crib and other baby gear, maternity items and other random needs.
Wittman also saw that the family needed help navigating life here. With no knowledge of English (the family speaks Pashto, one of two official languages in Afghanistan) they needed help with things such as a driving test for Farid, prenatal care for Fahima, and other paperwork to access health care and other needs.
Wittman said she was overwhelmed by the support of friends and fellow parishioners at Holy Infant. Her cousin, Delia Andrews, added that everyone they’ve
encountered so far has wanted to help.
“They need someone to be their friend and love them,” Wittman said. “This is exactly what Jesus wants us to do — to show love and compassion, and to help them. I feel like these are the people Jesus helped.”
The journey to the United States
The Wardaks’ journey to the United States included stops in Jordan, Germany, Washington, D.C., and then finally a military base in New Mexico. Eventually the family was placed in a small town in Iowa, but came to St. Louis in October. Farid Wardak has an uncle living here, with the promise of a job at a manufacturing facility in Fenton.
The family initially connected with the International Institute of St. Louis, which serves as an immigrant service and information hub for the St. Louis area. Ron Klutho, who works with refugee services at Bilingual International Assistant Services, learned from a friend about the arrival of the Wardaks and another family from Afghanistan and visited with them. He contacted Jessica Bueler with Welcome Neighbor STL, which helped get the word out on Facebook about the family’s needs.
Now here in the United States — with a new language and culture — Farid Wardak said he wants nothing more than to have his independence and a way to provide for his growing family.
Speaking through a translator, Wardak said American allies brought him to Kabul the day the family fled. He was told to contact somebody close to him (his brother-in-law) to get his wife and children right away. There was no opportunity for him to return home and say goodbye to their other family.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” he said. “We had no choice — we were just trying to get to safety.”
Pointing to Wittman and Andrews, he said, “this is like our family. We give them a lot of love. And we thank them so much for all of the help.”
Wardak said he loves almost everything about the United States so far. “Nobody can make any problems for you,” he said. “I can go to work and come home and relax. Everything you want to do, you can do here. I have my freedom here.”
“They need someone to be their friend and love them. This is exactly what Jesus wants us to do — to show love and
compassion, and to help them. I feel like these are the people Jesus helped.”
>> How to help
Welcome Neighbor STL is among several local organizations working with recently arrived individuals from Afghanistan, as well as immigrants and refugees from other countries.
The nonprofit organization has partnered with the International Institute of St. Louis, Oasis International and Christian Friends of New Americans to form a Command Center to streamline efforts to address the needs of arriving immigrants and refugees. The International Institute also partners with House of Goods, a nonprofit associated with the Islamic Foundation of Saint Louis, to help Afghans acclimate to their new home in St. Louis.
St. Louis is expected to resettle 1,500 immigrants and refugees in the next year, according to the International Institute of St. Louis. About 460 people arrived here from Afghanistan in 2021. Welcome Neighbor is currently working with 29 families, two from Syria and 27 from Afghanistan.
Welcome Neighbor is in need of volunteer family partners, which help new families navigate their move to St. Louis, as well as donations. To volunteer as a family partner, visit https://stlreview.com/3zr6crf. For more information on Welcome Neighbor, see welcomeneighborstl.org.
The International Institute of St. Louis also has volunteer opportunities, including helping Afghan newcomers. See iistl.volunteerlocal.com/volunteer/. Donations also may be made at www.iistl.org/donate.