‘Now they are my family.’ Afghan evacuees find love, acceptance in St. Paul

Within two weeks of fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and just a few days after  settling into their new home in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, Afghan evacuees Habib and Nasreen Raza had invited a neighbor family to dinner.

The Razas were sitting on their front stoop on Bush Avenue one day in mid-August when they spotted Chris and Briann Morbitzer out on their daily walk, pushing daughter Rosie, 2, and son Peter, 1, in a baby jogger.

The Razas smiled and waved.

The Morbitzers smiled and waved back.

A few days later, after more walks and waves, the Razas invited the Morbitzers to join them for dinner — an unexpected show of hospitality that caught Briann Morbitzer off guard.

“I was out with the kids by myself, and I said, ‘Yeah, maybe,’ ” she said. “It’s like the Minnesotan ‘Yeah, no, yeah.’ I said, ‘We’ll let you know. We’ll come knock.’ I had made some banana bread for them. I said I would drop it off and let them know about dinner, which is very Minnesotan.”

When she came home and told Chris Morbitzer about the dinner invitation, he said the Razas would be insulted if they didn’t accept.

“I don’t know a lot about foreign cultures, but the little I do is the culture of hospitality,” he said. “I knew that for them to invite us to dinner, which to us seems very forward, was for them very natural, and we would be rude to decline. It would almost be saying, ‘We don’t want to meet you.’ ”

Now, after dozens of meals and countless cups of tea, the neighbors have become “family,” Habib Raza said.

“My brothers and sisters, I left behind in Afghanistan, so now they are my family,” he said. “They are my brother, sister, everyone. We are sharing everything with each other.”

“We think of you as family, too, Mr. Raza,” Briann Morbitzer said.

The Razas and their children, Hamid, 23, and Sohaila, 18, were among the first Afghan evacuees to escape their country as the Taliban returned to power. So far, 360 Afghans have resettled in Minnesota, and at least another 445 are slated to arrive by the end of February, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

The Razas are working with St. Paul-based International Institute of Minnesota’s resettlement program. The institute has resettled 81 people through its Afghan placement assistance program and expects to help another 160 people in the next few weeks, said Robin Stramp, the agency’s communications and development manager.

Other agencies helping the Afghan evacuees include: Minnesota Council on Churches, Arrive Ministries, Lutheran Social Services, and Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota. Most of the evacuees, around 675 of them, are expected to settle in the metro area, according to DHS. Another 80 are expected to settle in Rochester, with 50 others in St. Cloud.

AN UNSETTLING THREAT

Habib Raza, 40, grew up in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. His favorite subject in school was English.

“From childhood, I liked to speak English,” he said. “I still want to improve myself more.”

Chris Morbitzer, left, and Habib Raza look up used car prices on Raza’s phone as they drink milk chai together in the Morbitzer’s St. Paul home, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. The Raza family moved to the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul after fleeing Afghanistan in August. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

His language skills led to a job in 2012 as an interpreter for the U.S. Army at the Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika province. He worked there for two years.

Habib Raza said his work for the U.S. Army led him to be targeted by the Taliban.

“Everyone is enemy who worked for America,” he said. “They sent me a letter, saying we have notified you more than three times to leave the country and not work with the Americans, but you did not hear, so we are going to kill you. Yes, I have that letter. The kids brought that letter to me.”

“How terrible that the kids brought that to you,” Briann Mobitzer said. “It’s just unsettling.”

“They were searching houses for people who were working for the American government, and killing them,” he said. “For the 20 years Americans were (in Afghanistan), they helped a lot. They helped build our country, but some of the people, like those in the Taliban, think America is not good. People who are saying ‘Americans are our enemies’ are thinking wrong things. This is not correct. No, they help us. They help me, especially.”

He and Nasreen, 48, who married in 1997, moved to Kabul in 2014. “I told my family not to talk to anyone about my job,” he said.

THE IMMIGRATION PROCESS

Habib Raza and his family had applied for special immigrant visas in 2013, but he said the applications weren’t processed. “Our cases disappeared,” he said. “For some reason, they stopped the process.”

Two years later, Raza took a job at the National Directorate of Security, the national intelligence and security service of Afghanistan.

In 2018, he received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stating that his case would be reopened — if he was still interested. He was.

Finally, in June, the Razas got word that their visa applications were being processed. An email from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul directed the family to schedule required medical exams at the American Medical Center in Kabul as soon as possible. All immigrant visa applicants, regardless of age, must undergo a medical examination by a physician accredited by the U.S. Embassy prior to the issuance of a visa.

Each exam, including x-rays and blood tests, costs about $520, Raza said. “They have to see if you are healthy enough to travel,” he said.

The Razas were cleared for travel, but their case remained “under process,” according to an email sent to Habib Raza in July, and the family would be notified once the administrative process was done.

Habib Raza received that notification at about 9:30 p.m. Aug. 3 in the form of an email from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that included four airplane tickets for a flight leaving the Hamid Karzai International Airport the next morning.

“It said, ‘You have to be at the airport at 7 a.m. for your 10 a.m. flight,’” he said. “We did not sleep that night. I called my little brother, and he came at night to visit me. We had some of the home stuff, and he took everything back to Jalalabad.”

The family brought three small suitcases packed with clothes. No photos or personal items, he said.

“We couldn’t bring anything because the situation was like that,” he said. “We didn’t get to see anyone and say goodbye — just my brother.”

The family flew from Kabul to Doha, the capital of Qatar, and then on to Washington, D.C., where they were greeted by U.S. Army personnel upon landing.

“I will never forget that moment,” Habib Raza said.

‘WE GOT LUCKY’

The Razas were taken to the Fort Lee Army base near Petersburg, Va., about 115 miles from Washington, D.C., to complete health and security clearances. Local school children, he said, brought them drawings and letters of welcome.

Five days later, they arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Habib Raza said he requested that his family’s final destination be Minnesota because of a friend, Rani Habib, whom he met while working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

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“He said the people in Minnesota were very nice, very kind, so I selected it as the destination for myself,” he said. “We arrived just before the U.S. pulled out. We got lucky.”

The first dinner the Razas hosted for the Morbitzers started with the families drinking tea and eating fruit while seated on the rug in the Razas’ living room.

“It was heaping plates of grapes and cookies and crackers, and another one of hummus and nuts and dates,” Briann Morbitzer said. “They had just moved here, and they were offering us all this food. It was just overwhelming.”

With the Aug. 31 deadline looming for all remaining U.S. troops to pull out of Afghanistan, the conversation at dinner centered on current events. Habib Raza was working desperately to get other family members out of Afghanistan.

The Morbitzers invited him to stop by their house the next day to use their WiFi to email people he knew and “pull any strings he could,” she said.

More dinners and tea dates followed.

“We mostly talked about Afghanistan at first,” Chris Morbitzer said. “It was still very much in the news. Every day we were reading long articles in the newspaper about what was happening leading up to the end of the month.”

On the way back from a trip to Aldi with Nasreen and Sohaila Raza one day, Briann Morbitzer remembers, a news report about Afghanistan came on Jazz 88 Radio.

“So I’m turning it up, and then I would explain something,” she said. “I had to pull over and type it into my phone for Google translate, and Sohaila would read it. I would say, ‘They’re talking about how it’s getting very scary at airports, and people are trying to go to the airport, and it’s getting difficult.’ ”

The families were together on Aug. 30, the day the last U.S. plane left Afghanistan.

“It was solemn,” Briann Morbitzer said. “It was, ‘How are you? Is your family safe?’ That day in particular, he hadn’t heard from his family, and he was noticeably discouraged. He was concerned for their safety.”

MINNESOTA HOSPITALITY

The Morbitzers took the Razas to the Minnesota State Fair in August. Chris Morbitzer helped them set up a checking account at a bank.

When the weather turned cold in September, the Morbitzers helped find clothing and warm bedding for the Razas. Members of Grace Church in Roseville organized a clothing drive on behalf of the Razas.

“They just packed suitcases and got an airplane the next day,” Briann Morbitzer said. “Their whole house, all of their possessions, what happened to them? They just had to leave it.”

Habib Raza likens starting over in a new country to being a baby.

“We have to take baby steps,” he said. “We are starting from zero, so we have to make a lot of friends. This is, like, our hometown now. We have to make friends with good people. In my first three months, I didn’t meet any bad people in Minnesota. Everyone that I met, they are respecting me. If you give respect, you will take respect. Everyone tries to make friends. This is my home now.”

Twice a week, the Razas do their laundry at the Morbitzers’ house. “We offered,” Briann Morbitzer said. “We know they don’t have a vehicle. They could walk to the laundromat, but that’s a long walk.”

When Briann Morbitzer has a craving for milk chai, Nasreen Raza brings over an insulated carafe of the hot beverage.

“She’s this tiny woman, and she comes through the door with tea and this gigantic bag of cookies, and our kids are just, like, ‘Nasreen!’” Briann Morbitzer said.

Once, when Briann Morbitzer took the kids to see her parents, the Razas were quick to stop over.

“They must have seen Briann and the kids leave, because not 15 minutes later, they show up knocking on the door with plates of food,” he said. “He said, ‘Your wife left. You must not be eating.’”

“I came through the door just moments after that, and Chris had these two plates of food,” Briann Morbitzer said. “I said, ‘What are you doing? There are leftovers.’”

“Their food is so good,” Chris Morbitzer said.

SETTLING IN TO A NEW LIFE

The Razas shop at Aldi and Cub Foods in St. Paul and at Little India in Minneapolis, where they buy halal meat, butchered according to Islamic dietary laws.

“The food is good here,” Habib Raza said. “We can get everything we need. If you go to Aldi, you can get the whole stuff in one place. In Afghanistan, we have small shops in the street. We have small markets everywhere.”

Habib Raza works the night shift at Aspire Bakeries in Chaska. An Afghan friend recommended him for the job, he said, and the two men drive over together. Raza got his driver’s permit last week and hopes to get his license in early 2022.

His son, Hamid, studies English at the Adult Education Center in St. Paul. Daughter Sohaila is a freshman at Harding High School.

Chris Morbitzer grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and is the owner and co-founder of Craft Codery, a software-development firm; Briann Morbitzer grew up in Annandale and is a speech therapist. Both are 31.

The couple, who had their third child, Theodore, early Tuesday morning at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood, met in 2016 and got married in 2019. They moved to their house on Bush Avenue in June 2020.

Moving to a new neighborhood during a pandemic was difficult, Briann Morbitzer said, so meeting the Razas this summer was a refreshing change.

“They are new to the country, but they have been the most generous on this block,” she said.

“If you visit any Afghan man or woman or friend or relative, anyone, they won’t let you go without tea,” Raza said. “If you visit, you cannot go without tea or chai. You would never say, ‘No, I don’t want any tea or chai.’ It would be rude to turn it down.”

Now, the Razas are looking forward to welcoming other Afghan families to Minnesota, he said.

“After I get my driver’s license, I can help,” he said. “If they need money, I can help. If they need some food, yes, I can help. If they need clothes, yes, I can help. If they need any help, yes, I am helping Afghani people.

“If someone needs help, it doesn’t matter if he is from Somalia or another country — if I can do, I will do my best with everyone,” he said. “Because I already got help, I am looking to help others.”

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