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At A D.C. Restaurant, One Generation Of Afghan Refugees Helps The Next

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Afghans have been evacuated from Kabul, and many will end up just outside Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia, home to a large population of Afghan immigrants. And that community is now preparing to welcome a wave of newcomers. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has the story of one Afghan family who runs a restaurant and their D.C. neighbors who stepped up to help.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Just north of the White House, there's a restaurant called Lapis. It's named after the bright blue stone found in Afghanistan. During the lunchtime rush, tables are full and plates are piled with dumplings and kabobs, stewed veggies and bolani flatbread stuffed with pumpkin and potato. Lapis is owned and run by the Popal family.

SHAMIM POPAL: This is my father and my mother.

LONSDORF: Shamim, the head chef and matriarch, is standing at the back, pointing out photos hanging on the wall...

S POPAL: And that's me with my two sons.

LONSDORF: ...From the '60s and '70s.

S POPAL: This is all in Kabul.

LONSDORF: She managed to take these with her when she fled Afghanistan in 1980 during the Soviet war.

S POPAL: I left Afghanistan with only two albums under my arm and a small suitcase.

LONSDORF: Shamim and her three small children bounced around before finally coming to the U.S. and settling near D.C. with family. She watched from afar as the Taliban took over and Afghanistan became a country she barely recognized. Now, 40 years later, it's happening again.

S POPAL: But now I think today they don't have the opportunity even to get a small suitcase. They just want to save themselves.

LONSDORF: Which explains the very different scene happening just below the restaurant in the basement.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: Does anyone have a new linen box going?

LONSDORF: It's full of boxes and bags reaching almost to the ceiling, all stuffed with donations, from baby clothes to light bulbs to kitchen plates to cleaning supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: Socks.

LONSDORF: About a dozen volunteers are sorting through it all, boxing, labeling, stacking. Shamim's daughter, Fatima, is off to the side looking a little overwhelmed. This was all her idea.

FATIMA POPAL: We didn't expect it to be this way.

LONSDORF: When the images of Afghans in need started flooding the world, Fatima called her brother, Omar.

F POPAL: And I said to him - I said, I can't just sit idle and just keep watching these posts. My heart is burning. And I said, we need to do something, at least for the Afghans that are coming here, that are resettling.

LONSDORF: So they sent out an email and posted on the restaurant's social media asking for donations from the community - household goods, clothes, anything. Omar jumps in.

OMAR POPAL: And then by the time I woke up the next day, we had all of these messages and requests. And there was somebody already outside with, like, two bags. And it just started.

LONSDORF: It turns out a lot of people wanted to help, like 25-year-old Connor Metz (ph).

CONNOR METZ: It's like a race against time because, you know, these folks are going to be arriving.

LONSDORF: He quit his lobbying job on the Hill to help here full-time. This felt much more immediate, he says.

METZ: I have savings. You know, savings are supposed to be used in an uncertain time or a weird life transition. I was like, yeah, this is going to be it.

SARA PIPERNOS: Can I snag some tape when you're done with it?

LONSDORF: Sara Pipernos is boxing up linens next to him. She was 3 when 9/11 happened. Afghanistan has been in the background nearly her entire life.

PIPERNOS: I have no ties there. But I just think, like, we have ties inherently as U.S. citizens. Like, we grew up with this war.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE UNROLLING)

LONSDORF: All of these donations are going to refugee resettlement agencies in the area working directly with the Afghans arriving now, usually with next to nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You got it?

YAMA NAJIB: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

LONSDORF: Yama Najib takes a box of kitchen supplies up to the sidewalk to be loaded on a giant moving van. He's Afghan American and showed up today to help after seeing a post on Instagram.

NAJIB: As an Afghan, like, the one thing that we preach the most is hospitality. We always have a saying that, you know, if there's one last meal, you give it to your neighbor or you give it to your friend.

LONSDORF: Shamim stands on the sidewalk, watching dozens of hands loading the truck, tears in her eyes.

S POPAL: I feel wonderful that - how people are care about us here in America. I know that the world left Afghanistan, turned their back to us. But at least the people - they care.

LONSDORF: Amy Levy (ph) lifts a box onto the van.

AMY LEVY: And it's just beautiful. It really is.

LONSDORF: She lives next door and saw what was happening. So she came to lend a hand.

LEVY: So it's nice to not be political for a change (laughter).

LONSDORF: There are plenty of people being political elsewhere in the city. But here on this sidewalk, outside a small Afghan restaurant, everyone just wants to help.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FITZGERALD'S "PASSING TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.