How one Afghan family is forging a new community in Lowell

How one Afghan family is forging a new community in Lowell

Noori recalled not knowing a single person in New England. He didn’t have a job. Or a car. Or an apartment. Or a winter coat. But he had his family.

And here he was in America at last. Outside the airport doors was the land of prosperity and opportunity and the big, fast cars from the American movies of his youth.

For about a decade, Noori, 33, had worked to make his country more like that shimmering vision of America, first alongside US Marines in the hills of Helmand province and then in classrooms teaching English. But at least in Afghanistan, that vision melted away when the United States withdrew its troops a year ago.

After a harrowing escape and a grueling journey halfway across the world, Noori and his Afghan compatriots quickly discovered that life in Lowell is no Hollywood movie.

“We thought that in America all the facilities of life would be provided for you,” he said. “That’s true when you work [for it].”

Noori and several hundred other Afghan refugees resettled in Lowell have set out to do what they could not do in their own country.

They are building a life of peace while forging a unified community that is slowly bridging the language and belief divides that have been tearing Afghanistan apart for decades.

“The United States of America didn’t build a nation in Afghanistan, and now the Afghans that are here are trying to build a new nation here in the United States,” said Jeff Thielman, president of the International Institute of New England, which resettled many of the Afghans.

And over the past year, Noori has evolved from just another Afghan in the crowd to a community leader, always eager to help his compatriots, even as he overcomes his own obstacles in the new country he’s now proud to call home.


Noori had been hiding for three days. The Taliban invaded Jalalabad, where Noori and his family lived, on August 15, 2021, hours before the Islamist militant group took the capital, Kabul.

Everyone in town knew he worked for the Americans.

“The Taliban believe … interpreters were the eye, hand and ear of American forces,” Noori said. “I’m 99 to 100 percent sure I would have been killed.”

Noori urged the Globe to use only his surname, which is common in Afghanistan, to protect relatives who remain in the country from Taliban retaliation.

Out of the blue, on August 17, a Marine Noori had worked with sent him the contact information of his former commanding officer, Major Josh White, to help Noori escape. White, a career soldier from rural Missouri, was attending a class at the naval base in Quantico, Virginia, when he received a call from Noori. White told him he would try to help.

“I realized very early on that the option of doing nothing was not an option,” White said. “It is my duty as a Christian to do what I can.”

White said he realized Noori and his family needed to get to Kabul Airport as soon as possible.

To travel from Jalalabad to Kabul, Noori said he pretended to be a backup driver in a vegetable delivery truck to get past the Taliban checkpoints. Meanwhile, White connected with other veterans on social media and managed to track down an Air Force major at Kabul Airport.

White recalled staying up all night hunched over his computer, directing Noori to go from one chaotic airport gate to another to meet with the Air Force major.

“Thousands of people pushed each other to… get into the airport,” Noori recalled. “There was no way I was supposed to come in.”

The Air Force major told White to ask Noori to find a large piece of white paper, write “JOSH WHITE” on it, and stand in front of the airport channel at 10 a.m. the next day.

The next morning, Noori was counting the minutes as he stood on a rock amidst the crowd, holding up the sign. Ten minutes passed, then 12.

Back in Virginia it was around 2 a.m. and White was also counting the minutes.

“It was just dead silence and all these thoughts are running through my head,” White said. “Eventually I get a text message from the Air Force major and he says, ‘We’ve got him.’ ”

Hours later, the family was on a plane to Qatar.


Noori’s mouth was dry and his hands were sweaty as he gripped the wheel of an RMV car in Wilmington. His parallel parking was sloppy, his three-point turn had a few too many points, and Noori knew he was about to fail his road test a second time.

“I was very surprised when he told me I passed,” said Noori, who described the scene, laughing.

Getting his license at the end of March was a huge relief. It felt like a hard-fought victory after the family’s first few months at Lowell, which had been difficult at times.

Luckily for Noori, days after his arrival, Lowell Community Health Center hired him as a Dari and Pashto interpreter for the influx of new Afghan patients. But rent, WiFi and heating were expensive. They also desperately missed their families in Afghanistan.

“Whenever I talk to my mother, she used to cry because we’re away from her, so that’s the hardest part,” Samya said, while her Pashto husband translated.

Samya, 23, and Noori’s fathers are unemployed and their families are struggling to find enough food amid Afghanistan’s deepening humanitarian crisis. Noori sends back $200 to $400 a month.

Worse, as Noori would admit many months later, the family felt trapped and helpless in a tiny apartment.

Luckily for Noori and the other 275 refugees who eventually settled in Lowell, there was a group of Afghans who had arrived in the area years earlier offering support and guidance. The group’s de facto leader, Mohammad Bilal, is another former military interpreter who arrived in 2014.

First, Bilal and the others set up a WhatsApp group for the newcomers.

“We’ll just call the community if anyone is available, please just help this family. …you would get [the refugees] Essen, they were there to take her to the hospital,” said Bilal. “Whatever their need, we helped them.”

Noori had an added benefit: Major White and his entire family still looked out for him. White knew Noori needed a car, so he set up a GoFundMe page that raised $14,000 and bought Noori a used Ford Focus.

The car arrived about a month after Noori passed his driver’s test last spring. He was overjoyed.

In May, on the maiden voyage from his Liberty Street apartment to the local Market Basket, Noori’s exuberance was tempered only by his careful driving.

He slowly came to a stop at stop signs. “One, two, three,” he counted out loud before gently accelerating.

“Before, I didn’t really feel like I was in America,” he said. “But since I’ve got a car and been moving around town, I realize it’s me.”


On a sunny day in May, a middle-aged Afghan man with the veined hands of a worker told Noori in the Dari language that he was having trouble breathing through his nose. Noori leaned against some of the cabinets in an exam room at Metta Health Center, the refugee clinic at Lowell Community Health Center, and turned to look for Dr. Translate Rob Marlin.

“Have you ever broken your nose?” Marlin asked the Afghan. Noori translated back to Dari. The man took a second. “Yes,” he said to Noori 24 years ago.

Marlin wheeled his swivel chair over to the man and shone a small flashlight in his nose. It has actually been blocked. The doctor referred him to a specialist.

Metta, originally founded in 2000 to help the Southeast Asian refugee population who arrived in Lowell in the 1980s, now serves about 300 Afghan patients, according to Marlin.

By May, Marlin and Noori were the clinic’s dynamic duo, screening each new Afghan. Marlin brings the medical knowledge and Noori the linguistic and cultural savoir-faire.

Each patient reveals aspects of Afghan life in Lowell.

Many of the Afghans speak no English and have found manual, unskilled work. On the day a reporter came to visit, a middle-aged man with irritated hands from all the cardboard at his work in the camp was prescribed lotion and advised to wear gloves.

Marlin and Noori vaccinated several other patients and gave out stomach pills, as many of their patients have long-untreated health problems and are still adjusting to American food.

Before an investigation, Noori Marlin pointed out that a man’s name indicates he is a member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group. That prompted Marlin to take a closer look at the man’s roommates and if he feels safe.

“He often finds out things I didn’t ask, didn’t think of,” Marlin said.

Just like he was for the Afghan villagers and the American Marines in Helmand, Noori is a bridge once again. After Noori matched a man with a dentist, the man put his hand on his heart and bowed. “Thank you,” he said.


Noori swung the cricket bat and there was a crisp “thwack” as the ball went over the fielders’ heads. Twenty Afghan men stood around the gates at Lowell’s grassy Regatta Festival Field, facing the gray waters of the Merrimack River, on an overcast early autumn day. Twenty other Afghans sat nearby on the grass and talked.

The WhatsApp group messages of a lonely first winter had blossomed into a season of weekend cricket matches.

Samya and the other women have also found fellowship, perhaps more slowly than the men, and are looking after their children in the South Common Park playground and at the Chelmsford Mosque.

Samya gave birth to a son they named Abubakar in late July, and the two girls are, as Noori is fond of saying as he chases them around the apartment, “naughty” as ever.

Noori also spends a lot of time thinking about the future of the family. Taqwa, 4, and Zahra, 3, will start school next year and the family must decide how to raise their daughters in keeping with their devout beliefs while also adapting to American culture.

“I don’t want them to be too free. I don’t want them to be in too much control,” Samya said. “Only 50-50.”

However, problems remain for the community. Noori and others who served directly with the US forces during the Afghan war are eligible for special immigrant visas, but about two-thirds of the others are nervously awaiting asylum cases because they are not eligible for SIV, said Caroline Rowe, the Lowell Manager Director of the International Institute of New England.

And some tensions that reflect historical divisions in Afghanistan remain between Dari and Pashto speakers, Rowe said.

But they fade, said Noori. He points to his neighbors in his apartment building.

They are from a rival province in Afghanistan, but Noori drives them all over Lowell whenever they need a ride, and Samya becomes fast friends with the mother.

“No one cares about those differences here,” Noori said. “Everyone thinks the same thing: that we are all Afghans.”

Alexander Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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