The 20th anniversary of 9/11 and recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan are a time of resetting. Debates about our entry into and exit from Afghanistan are prompting fierce disagreements. But we can be divided about these issues and still come together — as we did after the terrorist attacks two decades ago — to stand by people in need during a time of national tragedy. Just as we found ways to help each other then, Americans can open our hearts and country to the Afghan families who are seeking safety and a new start — those who have arrived and more who will come in the days ahead.
The day that 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and turned them against the American people is etched in our collective memories. But what happened in the following weeks and months revealed something profound and enduring about our country.
Journalist William Langwiesche was at Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers and wrote in “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center” that a “reversal soon occurred by which people began moving toward the disaster rather than away from it. The reaction was largely spontaneous, and it cut across the city’s class lines as New Yorkers of all backgrounds tried to respond.” By nightfall, “the first clattering of generators lit the scene, and an all-American outpouring of equipment and supplies began to arrive” — a flood of American compassion.
Afghan Americans were a part of this outpouring of support. A mosque led by them in New York City donated blood, organized a vigil to honor those who died in the World Trade Center, and created a memorial for New York City firefighters. President Bush visited a mosque six days after 9/11, took off his shoes, read from the Quran and recognized that “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country [as] doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.”
Twenty years later, the wheel has turned and we will see our Afghan allies enter America. Most Americans may not know that Afghans have been coming to America since before the U.S. Civil War. Large numbers came here in the late 1970s after the Soviet invasion of their country, and America counts about 140,000 Afghan Americans today who live in the United States.
Once again, Americans are standing with our Afghan partners who demonstrated bravery and commitment to service. Afghans have supported our military mission over the past 20 years and many lost everything — their homes, their safety, their identities — because of their association with the United States. We have a moral obligation to welcome and support the Afghans who put everything on the line to assist their American allies.
One challenge, however, is to ensure American compassion meets the actual needs of Afghans. Langwieshce’s visit to Ground Zero noted there was such an outpouring of support that New York City had to hire a trucking operation to haul the excess of American compassion away because it was interfering with the response. We want to help funnel today’s support for Afghans to the very places where assistance is needed most.
To help, we are launching something that has never existed before in refugee resettlement efforts — a single point of entry and clearinghouse that will provide Americans concrete ways to assist in this vital work. Called Welcome.US, this new effort works with resettlement agencies, Afghan Americans, refugees, community groups, businesses, faith-based organizations, veterans, mayors, governors and the federal government. Former President Bush and first lady Laura Bush, former President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE, and former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE and first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama looks to mobilize voters for midterms We must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE have joined the cause in a spirit of national unity.
The Welcome.US platform will connect Americans with agencies that provide housing, food, clothing, medical care, legal services, transportation and more. A Welcome Fund will provide emergency grants to nonprofits working to address the urgent needs facing Afghan families. A Welcome Exchange will match local needs of Afghans with support from local enterprises. Whether it’s sharing a welcome message, donating funds or supplies, or signing up to sponsor an Afghan family, every American can help.
Our focus is on our new Afghan neighbors — their needs, hopes and dreams of rebuilding their lives. So many have demonstrated courage few of us ever will be called upon to summon. Their resilience, skills and determination will enrich us all.
But this moment is also about us as Americans — how we can reach beyond ourselves to reflect a common humanity, transcend divisions and heal, and see in others a spark of hope we want to see in ourselves.
Cecilia Muñoz and John Bridgeland were former directors of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Presidents Obama and Bush and are co-chairs of Welcome.US.