After three tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger medic, Keith Jochem said he knows the Afghan people as caring, welcoming and generous.
His wife, Shazia, is also from Afghanistan, having grown up in Kabul, from where her family fled the Russian invasion in the 1980s.
That is why Jochem, a George Mason University police lieutenant, said he jumped at the chance to volunteer to help when a group of 174 Afghan refugees, fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country on a U.S. government flight, sheltered for 24 hours at Northern Virginia Community College’s gym in Annandale, Aug. 20-21.
“It was heartbreaking,” Jochem said. “You have to put yourselves in their shoes. What if something happened here and you had to gather some of your clothes and documents and your family? You go to a different country, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, you’re thrown into a gym, and that’s it.”
Jochem was one of 29 volunteers with Mason ties who gave of their time at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC). Volunteers came from the Emergency Operations Group, University Police, the Office of the Provost, Information Technology Services, the Office of Business Services, and the regional campuses.
Dave Farris, executive director of Safety and Emergency Management at Mason, put out the call after Tom Mayhew, his counterpart at NVCC, notified him the state had activated NVCC as an emergency shelter.
It’s part of an agreement between the schools and the state that when either Mason or NVCC is activated as a shelter, the other lends a hand.
“It worked out fantastic,” Mayhew said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Mason folks.”
Though NVCC was the lead agency, Farris said Mason’s volunteers pitched in wherever necessary—whether it was setting up 500 cots, managing donations, or helping manage the 150 volunteers that showed up, including more than 100 from NVCC and many from the local Afghan community.
“The turnout from the Afghan community was unbelievable, and it absolutely couldn’t have been possible without them,” Farris said.
Mason alum Roya Nasrahti, BS criminology, law, and society ’19, a communications officer with Mason Police, is part of that community, having come to the United States with her family from Afghanistan when she was young.
“I believe the Afghan volunteers and refugees felt more comfortable speaking with me because I spoke the same language,” said Narahti. “I also felt a sense of trust and assurance between us.”
Farris was sure that comfort was appreciated.
“They were extremely tired,” he said of the refugees. “As we walked around initially handing out, food, water and clothing, it was obvious they had been through some terrible events.”
Jochem also speaks some Farsi, and his medical background was valuable. His wife, Shazia, an ER nurse and Mason alum (BS Psychology ’03; BSN ’08), found a babysitter for their three kids, and joined her husband.
For Jochem, seeing the Afghans in distress, including the many children and babies in the group, was jarring.
“Their culture is deep in giving and making sure everyone else is taken care of first before themselves,” he said, adding, “I still have contacts in the military in operations in [Afghanistan] that I spoke with on the phone a couple of days ago. They said what you see on the news is 10 times worse in reality.”
The reality for the refugees was that their travels, after a 13-hour flight from Afghanistan, were not over in Virginia. At 8 p.m. on Aug. 21 the last bus pulled away from NVCC for a ride to the Dulles Expo Center, where the refugees waited for a flight to Texas and processing.
“I know they’ve been through a lot,” Nasrahti said of the refugees. “The people have been extremely traumatized. We opened our doors and hearts to let them in and keep them safe.”
HOW TO HELP
- Through the Red Cross.
- Through the United Nations Refugee Agency.
- Through these reputable agencies, via the New York Times.
- Through Mason’s Afghan Student Union.
We understand that members of our Mason community may experience a range of emotions and we want to remind you of resources available at our university. For students, professional support is offered through Counseling and Psychological Services, the Student Support and Advocacy Center, the Office of International Programs and Services, and the Office of Military Services. Contact information and additional University Life resources can be identified and accessed through ulife.gmu.edu.
Faculty and staff resources also are available through the Employee Assistance Program, which can be accessed through your employer-sponsored health insurance. Details can be found on the benefits website at hr.gmu.edu.
Mason’s Department of History and Art History invites you and your students to attend a timely online panel discussion on "The Fall of Afghanistan," featuring Department of History and Art History faculty and a guest speaker with historical training who served 2.5 years in-country. Please share the event announcement (below) and link as you see fit. This event is online, free, and open to the public.
Event details and Zoom link: historyarthistory.gmu.edu/events/12516