WVU Medicine employee’s family welcomes Afghan refugees, helps them find jobs

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan in 2021, Colleen Harshbarger, wife of David Harshbarger, WVU Medicine Wellness Center manager, knew she had to help. She researched avenues to direct funding but had difficulty finding secure options. When a friend reached out to her about hosting refugees, she knew this was her opportunity to get involved. 

Left to right, standing: Madina Amanzai, Zeba Karimi, Behafsha Ayeen, Mahwara Azada, Mahboba Amiri, David Harshbarger Left to right, kneeling: Colleen Harshbarger, Lynn Higgs, Brynn Harshbarger
Left to right, standing: Madina Amanzai, Zeba Karimi, Behafsha Ayeen, Mahwara Azada, Mahboba Amiri, and David Harshbarger. Left to right, kneeling: Colleen Harshbarger, Lynn Higgs, Brynn Harshbarger

“A friend of mine called and said she was going to be a host family for an Afghan refugee and asked if I would be a reference. I told her I would not only be a reference, but I also wanted to host,” Colleen said. “I’ve been a yoga teacher for 30 years, and I’m very attuned to my dharma, my true purpose. I had a real yearning to help with the crisis in Afghanistan.”

Another friend of the Harshbargers, Karen Allen, was the one leading the search for host families in the community. She helped connect the family with Zeba Karimi before she arrived. The Harshbargers, along with four other host families now work with five refugees, providing a community for them and helping to navigate things that may be unfamiliar to them. 

“We’ve taken them cross country skiing and hiking, just introducing them to fun things to do in the community. We help with the process of finding jobs, whether it’s filling out a 10-page application or sending emails,” David said. “Sometimes it’s something that may seem small, like a ride to the payroll office because it isn’t walkable from campus.”

The women were students at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and had returned to Kabul during COVID. The university’s administration recognized the need for its 150 female Afghani students to evacuate and helped coordinate with the United States military to provide flights out of the country. 

“They originally arranged for us to leave by charter flight, but we were refused entry to the airport and missed our flight,” Karimi said. “We found out we could leave by U.S. military planes, and they helped us do that.”

The women traveled from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and Spain before arriving in Washington, D.C. They were then sent to a refugee camp at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin until receiving their placement in West Virginia on December 23, 2021, four months after leaving Afghanistan. The women live in dorms on the West Virginia University campus and are enrolled as students. Many have found employment with WVU Medicine. They have already become active in the community, volunteering for various organizations and making a difference.

Since their arrival, they’ve participated in the holiday traditions of both their host families and their own and have learned about the culture of the U.S. and Appalachia.
“I’m seeing and watching the culture of what people do here,” Madina Amanzai, another Afghani refugee, said. “Especially on July 4. It’s like the biggest of the federal holidays in the United States. I just learn about how American got their independence. I also like Christmas and all the baking. It has been a very good experience for me.”

According to Karimi and Amanzai, becoming refugees and traveling to the United States was the best opportunity they had to live the lives they had planned.

“At this time in Afghanistan, all opportunities for women are closed,” Amanzai said. “Coming here was a way for us to be safe and achieve what we want. Afghani people are very intelligent and are just trying to achieve their aims. Coming to the United States is the best way to improve our chances for our futures.”