World: How small-town Maine embraced a family that fled the Taliban

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Omid, left, and Nasir walk on a path winding through farm fields near their homes in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Omid, left, and Nasir walk on a path winding through farm fields near their homes in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Jodi Hilton for Insider

In the fall of 2021, a family from Afghanistan was resettled in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. This is the story of how they rebuilt their lives, the community that welcomed them, and a friendship that bridged two cultures.

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — Last November, at about midnight, Omid was lying in bed in his new home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine — exhausted, but unable to sleep. He texted Nasir Shir, his old friend from Afghanistan who lived down the street. Was Nasir awake, and was he up for a walk?

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Nasir was awake; he often stays up late to talk to friends and relatives in Afghanistan, nine and a half hours ahead. On this night, and on many nights during Omid's first few months in Maine, Nasir was soon at his door. The two men set off. Under the night sky, they passed driveways with basketball hoops, porches with American flags, and the occasional boat parked in someone's yard.

Omid and Nasir had met in 2004 on the site of an international development project in Kabul. At that point, Nasir had been living in the US for 20 years, but his work in geographic information systems took him all over the world, and sometimes back to Afghanistan, for international development contracts. Omid, 14 years younger, was an IT specialist.

A deep friendship began, and the two stayed close. When Nasir's family would pass through Kabul, Omid would host them. "Anyone who travels to Afghanistan goes to his house," Nasir told me. "He's the ticket agent, the hotel, and the food place." Omid got to know Nasir's extended family — "cousins, uncles, aunts, everybody." The two men share a similar sense of humor and laughter comes easily when they're together.

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When the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan weeks before the planned US withdrawal, Omid fled with his wife and their four young children.

Nasir urged them to come to Cape Elizabeth. "I warned him about the cold weather, and that there are not many Muslims there," Nasir said. He also talked up its virtues. "I said: 'If you want to make money, don't come to Maine. But if you want to raise your family, come to Maine.'"

But it wasn't just Nasir who welcomed Omid. The whole town had. In the weeks before Omid's family arrived, an army of neighbors had rolled up their sleeves to help get the house ready, dropping by at odd hours to scrape up subfloors, install a new kitchen, mount cheerful decor, and plant flowers.

Omid felt immense gratitude toward everyone who had helped his family. "I will never stop appreciating them," he told me. But the transition to his new life in Maine was still hard — even with all the goodwill in the world.

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Omid's family arrived in Maine just before Halloween in 2021 and recently celebrated one year in Maine. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Omid's family arrived in Maine just before Halloween in 2021 and recently celebrated one year in Maine. Jodi Hilton for Insider

Kabul

The call came in the afternoon. It was August 27, 2021. Twelve days earlier, Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. Now, Omid was being told to gather his family and head to the airport immediately.

For days, Omid had lived with a constant feeling of dread. He worried that the Taliban government would target him as a collaborator for his work on US and United Nations-backed development projects. In case he was killed in a blast and no loved ones could be called upon to carry out the Muslim funeral ritual of ghusl, in which the body of the dead is washed before it is laid to rest, he took care to wash himself every day. In 2018, Omid had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, which was still in process. (Editor's Note: We are using a pseudonym for Omid and his family members.)

Omid and his wife, Palwasha, hurriedly filled a suitcase with clothing for their four children. They grabbed diapers and a swaddle for the youngest, Safa, who was just a month old.

From the roof of his apartment building, Omid could see Kabul's international airport, where thousands of people had been lining up but most were denied entry. Just the day before, a suicide bombing had killed nearly 200 people. Omid was still not sure that he would be leaving Afghanistan that day. Everyone wanted to leave, but not everyone was able to.

"No one wants to leave their country," Omid would tell me later. "All your friends, your family members, your culture, your language. But the thing that you are missing is security. For the sake of your children, you know you should leave everything and get out of that hell."

At the airport, Omid's family was ushered through a gate. Others tried to use the moment to scramble through, and a cloud of tear gas exploded around them. Inside, Omid was told he wouldn't be able to board the plane with a suitcase. "I left everything there in the airport," he told me. "But at the time, it was important for me to save my life, not my clothes."

Wearing bracelets with barcodes wrapped around their wrists, the family was led onto an airplane bound for Doha, Qatar. As the plane took off, Safa, the baby, was still red in the face from the tear gas.

In all, 124,000 Afghans were evacuated in the final two weeks before the US withdrawal, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and more would follow. Of the 76,000 who were resettled in the US, most went to Texas, California, and Virginia — places with established Afghan American communities. But evacuees ended up in nearly every state.

For Omid and his family, that final destination would be Maine — the whitest (91%), oldest (the median age is just shy of 45), and most rural (60% of Mainers live in rural areas) state in the US. How that happened is the story of a community that banded together to welcome a family of strangers, and a friendship that has bridged two cultures.

The Portland Head Light is Maine's oldest lighthouse and an iconic tourist destination. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider The Portland Head Light is Maine's oldest lighthouse and an iconic tourist destination. Jodi Hilton for Insider

Friends in need

Back in Cape Elizabeth during those tense days in August 2021, Nasir's phone was ringing off the hook as friends and former colleagues in Afghanistan desperately sought help getting out. He and Omid were speaking every day. On one call, Nasir could hear gunfire in the background and Omid, alone in his family's apartment, seemed to be in a state of shock.

Nasir also left Afghanistan as a refugee, during the Soviet-Afghan war, and had come to Portland, Maine, in 1984 when he was 13. Nasir's sister, Shukria, who's six years younger, recalled learning English by watching Bob Ross' painting shows and "Sesame Street."

Both she and Nasir received full scholarships to attend Waynflete, a highly-regarded private school in Portland. While the school was mostly white, they had classmates from Cambodia and Laos. Nasir and others were encouraged to share stories about their immigrant experiences, and he said he developed pride in his background and an appreciation for the value of listening to one another.

"Back then, the state was new with refugees," Nasir told me. "There were hardly any Muslims, never mind any Afghans." Halal meat wasn't widely available, and Nasir remembers going with his grandfather to local farms to help slaughter lambs, and then packing the meat into bags to store in the freezer.

There is a saying in Maine that people who are not born there or do not come from a long lineage of Mainers are from "away." In some communities in Maine, families have lived there for so many generations that roads and bodies of water are named after them. If you tell people the town you grew up in, and they are familiar with it, they might know your whole family, and all of your neighbors too.

In the 1800s, Irish and French Canadian immigrants started arriving in Maine. In the early  1900s, House Island, off the coast of Portland, was used to process overflows of new arrivals to the United States and became known as "Ellis Island of the North." Immigrants and refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos came in the mid-to late 1970s and a Somali community began emerging in the early 2000s in Lewiston. According to the Portland Press Herald newspaper, around 250 Afghans were in Maine before the Taliban's takeover of the country.

Nasir considers himself a true Mainer because it's the place he keeps coming back to. "For most people, any place where they spend their childhood is home. I spent my childhood from 13 on, here, so it's home," he said. "I went to Dubai, Pakistan, traveled the world, but I still chose to come back."

Nasir and his wife, Nazia, made their home in Cape Elizabeth, nearby Portland, in the late 1990s, and it's here where they're raising their five children, who range in age from 11 to 25. Once a farming and fishing village, the town of 9,500 people now has a reputation for excellent schools. A few miles away from the multimillion-dollar homes that hug the inlet of Casco Bay, Nasir's neighborhood is dense with suburban homes on relatively small lots. Shukria lives nearby. His two brothers live across the street.

Cape Elizabeth is both rural and residential. Ocean House Farm is located near the town's center. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Cape Elizabeth is both rural and residential. Ocean House Farm is located near the town's center. Jodi Hilton for Insider Kettle Cove is one of several beaches popular with locals. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Kettle Cove is one of several beaches popular with locals. Jodi Hilton for Insider

After the 9/11 attacks, as American troops began deploying to Afghanistan, Muslims in the area were sometimes harassed or intimidated. Nasir, then in his early 30s, was involved in a local mosque and active on local boards, and he started being asked to speak at churches and other community gatherings. People wanted to know about the Taliban, and they had questions about Islam. "It's human nature to fear what you don't know," Nasir told me.

The outreach seemed to come naturally to Nasir, Shukria told me. He was patient and knowledgeable — and not one to easily take offense, even when he had every right to. Instead, on the occasions through the years when someone would make a comment that was either subtly or outright rude or derogatory, his responses would be gracious and respectful, and he'd often offer to have more conversations.

Nasir's calm approach "takes an unbelievable amount of self-control," said Denney Morton, Nasir's former teacher who's now a friend. "It also," Morton continued, "takes a person who believes that the future is going to be worth putting up with that kind of stuff."

Nasir's mission is "to make this country live up to what it says it's going to be," Morton said. "He does it all the time — and he does it with laughter, and joy, and inviting people over to his house."

In 2016, after Donald Trump's election, Nasir's daughter Haleema remembers hearing, "Now that we have a new president, all the Muslims will be deported." Nasir's son, who was born in Maine, was told to "go back" to where he came from. Maine's governor at the time, Paul LePage, who coined himself "Trump before Trump," was regularly called out for racist statements. In 2016, he sent a letter to President Barack Obama saying that Maine would no longer participate in resettling refugees. (LePage, who left office because of term limits, challenged his successor, Gov. Janet Mills, in this year's election but lost by a wide margin.)

Nasir's response, again, was outreach. He got involved in local politics and won a seat on the school board in 2017. And he and Nazia often invited dozens of locals from the Cape Elizabeth area to their home to break the Ramadan fast with a big meal.

By opening their home and sharing their lives with their Cape Elizabeth neighbors, Nasir and Nazia, and his sister Shukria, created a model of community-building for others in town to emulate — "not at Nasir levels, but in some way," said Jim Sparks, a friend who's worked with Nasir on community projects.

"He's brought a warmth and generosity and large-heartedness that's pretty contagious," Sparks said.

As it happened, Nasir was about to lean on that community as he prepared to welcome Omid and his family to Cape Elizabeth. Unlike his own arrival to the US, Nasir wanted his old friend to "start from the top."

'Would others help me, even if they didn't know me?'

Two miles away from Nasir's home in Cape Elizabeth, Emily Mavodones was also watching the news from Afghanistan. A video showing desperate people clinging to an airplane as it took off from Kabul International Airport had left her shaken. "What would I do to protect my family, my children?" she asked herself. "Would others help me, even if they didn't know me?"

Emily found Nasir's name and contact information in a local paper. They had met once at a kid's birthday party, and she later learned that they had other passing connections: Her father-in-law had gone to school with Nasir and her mother had worked with him. "Our words were in parallel," she told me.

Even as she reached out, Emily wasn't exactly sure what helping out could mean. A mom of three kids, she had volunteered here and there at a soup kitchen and she'd donated blood to the Red Cross. But she had never been involved in a long-term humanitarian effort.

Nasir replied, hastily, with links to the USCIS website for sponsoring Afghans. Between the $575 application fee and the pledge to support the person financially, at least initially, Emily quickly realized it was too big a commitment for her family. She let it drop.

Several weeks later, Nasir had caught his breath. Omid's family was out of Afghanistan. Catholic Charities, the local refugee-resettlement organization in Maine, was working with Omid's family to help them resettle. Nasir expected his friend to arrive in the next few weeks. Nasir circled back to everyone who had reached out to him earlier. For one thing, Omid's family would need a place to live.

Emily Mavodones, who was part of the team who helped prepare a home for Omid and his family, holds Safa, the youngest of Omid and Palwasha's four children. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Emily Mavodones, who was part of the team who helped prepare a home for Omid and his family, holds Safa, the youngest of Omid and Palwasha's four children. Jodi Hilton for Insider

As an Afghan evacuee, Omid would be given some financial assistance to help pay for housing. A two-story structure, a few doors down from Nasir, seemed like a good choice. It was one of several properties that Nasir owned in the area. When he bought it, it had most recently been used as a dentist's office, which meant there was no kitchen, and there was a large sink in almost every room.

Nasir often rented out his properties to refugees and asylum seekers, or families from the area who qualified for Section 8 or General Assistance housing. It was reliable income, and Nasir saw it as a way to help newcomers who often lack the up-front cash or the credit and employment history that many landlords required. He'd bought this house a year earlier, with the idea that a local Congolese family would move in. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, their son had given a speech that had moved Nasir, and he had gotten to know them a bit. But the home still needed a lot of work to function as a residential space. After a while, the family had gone someplace else.

Now, with Omid heading to Maine, finishing the house was urgent.

Emily offered to set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for renovations, and donations poured in — at final count, $12,890 from 142 people.

Haleema, now in her early 20s, and Shukria set up a Google doc with a wish list of items. Packages started arriving at the house — mixing bowls, a pressure cooker, mortar and pestle, a bunk bed, a vacuum, clothing, diapers, toys, a crib.

"It was amazing how many people reached out to us," Shukria told me. "I think people were ready to help. You know, there were things being talked about." Specifically, she said, "We were talking about racism, we were talking about prejudice."

What Shukria was referring to was how the residents of Cape Elizabeth had spent the past few years in a period of intense reflection. Trump-era policies, like the "Muslim ban," and then the Black Lives Matter movement had challenged them to talk openly about what kind of community they wanted to be, what their values were, and how to translate their values into action.

Along with a handful of other volunteers, Nasir had helped form the Cape Diversity Coalition, which drew up a resolution saying Cape Elizabeth was welcoming to all. The school board passed it quickly. The town council took a bit longer — there was concern that the resolution was political and therefore not appropriate for the nonpartisan body — but, ultimately, it passed it too. A "global competency" goal was set for Cape Elizabeth students to be "personally responsible, aware, empathetic, and engaged local and global citizens."

Perhaps this was why, when Nasir presented his neighbors with an urgent need, he had found a ready audience. Volunteers showed up to the house mostly in the early evening after work. They pulled up old flooring, installed new appliances, and painted walls. Some knew their way around a construction site, and others didn't.

Nasir and Emily shared the code to enter the building so volunteers could come and go when it suited them. A to-do list was posted at the entrance, with items to be crossed off.

"He provided a vehicle for community members for stepping up and helping," Susana Measelle Hubbs, who served on the school board and the Cape Diversity Coalition, said of Nasir. "And I think everyone who did was so appreciative of that opportunity."

"He walks the talk," she added.

One Sunday afternoon, Barbara Leen stopped by. An immigration lawyer, she had been fielding calls all week about getting people out of Afghanistan. She found Nasir at the house and, when she asked what he needed, he pointed to one of the bedrooms and said with a shrug, "Well, it's a nasty job, but you can scrape up the subfloor."

Friends Barbara Leen, an immigration lawyer (left) and Emily Mavodones, holding daughter Thea, are among those who helped get the house ready for Omid and his family. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Friends Barbara Leen, an immigration lawyer (left) and Emily Mavodones, holding daughter Thea, are among those who helped get the house ready for Omid and his family. Jodi Hilton for Insider

For the next few hours, Leen went to work scraping up a rubbery substance so a new floor could be laid down. Afterward, when Nasir learned about Leen's day job, he laughed. "I'm not sure scraping subfloors is exactly what I need you for," he said.

As the house neared completion, Nasir gave me a tour: "This is where the reception was, this is where the laboratory was, this is where you got your teeth drilled." A drawing of the Cape Elizabeth lighthouse, the Portland Head Light — Maine's oldest — was hung on the wall, beside wooden letters that spelled out HOME.

In the front yard, Emily had dug up some evergreen bushes that blocked light from entering the downstairs windows and replaced them with junipers, dogwoods, and irises.

From a refugee camp in Virginia, Omid and his family awaited the paperwork to move, then a COVID-19 quarantine, and then a second quarantine after a measles case was identified in their camp.

Omid still had no idea about the house, or what was awaiting them in Cape Elizabeth. Nasir had decided it would all be a surprise.

Art on one of the walls in Omid's home. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Art on one of the walls in Omid's home. Jodi Hilton for Insider

Welcome

Omid arrived in Maine wearing a loose pair of sweatpants and a phone charger fashioned into a belt. The family had almost nothing of their own. They would spend their first night in a hotel, and Nasir promised to pick them up the next day and drive them to a welcome party at his sister's house.

The next morning, they all pulled up in front of the old dentist's office.

Some 20 members of Nasir's extended family were standing out front. Emily was there too, along with her family. Pink, blue, and yellow balloons bobbed around them, and, inside, streamers dangled from the kitchen ceiling.

Nasir led them into the house and showed Omid his new bedroom. "This is your house," he said, as he handed Omid a ring of keys.

After a pause, Omid placed his hand over his heart, several times. Omid hugged Nasir, burying his head in his friend's shoulder. Both of them were in tears. They stood there, holding each other for a long time.

A sense of belonging

Within two days of their arrival, Omid's two older children, 7-year-old Aref and 6-year-old Farzan, were attending elementary school in Cape Elizabeth. They had been set up with a social worker, a teacher for English as a Second Language, and a translation app. The younger kids, Karimah, 3, and Safa, the baby, stayed home with their mom.

Omid worried that his kids had been scarred by their experience at the camps. No one had much of anything, and everyone competed for the clothing and toys that were doled out. "For the first three weeks when we arrived, my kids were completely wild," Omid told me.

Nasir, perhaps playing the role of the advocate he wished he'd had when he first arrived in Portland as a refugee kid, met with the school's staff to explain what the children had experienced in the refugee camps. "Please don't judge them — they are really good kids," Nasir said.

Omid holds his house keys. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Omid holds his house keys. Jodi Hilton for Insider

Soon, though, Omid said with relief, things started to feel normal again. Nasir, just a few doors down, was happy to explain playdates, sleepovers, and other ins and outs of raising kids in the US. Emily would occasionally drop by to see how they were settling in.

Privately, though, Omid was struggling. He was looking for a job, but nothing had come through yet. In these early days, while he waited to get an American driver's license, he relied mostly on donated Uber rides, a gift from someone in the Cape Elizabeth community. He missed being able to hop in his own car and make spontaneous trips with his wife and kids.

For Nasir, the Maine countryside reminded him of the village in the north of Afghanistan where he was born — lots of trees and farmland, and quiet, which he liked. But Omid's life in Afghanistan had been in Kabul, a city of 4.6 million people when he was last there — more than three times the population of Maine. The city required constant vigilance. Driving around town meant navigating the security barriers that had been laid down to deter suicide car bombings. But it was home.

In Afghanistan, Omid and his friends believed in seizing the day. They would make plans to go out for billiards and kebabs on a moment's notice. He couldn't adjust to the highly scheduled culture in which he now found himself. When people would suggest doing something days or weeks in the future, Omid would sometimes think to himself: "Who knows that you'll be alive then? Enjoy yourself!"

Beyond Nasir and his extended family, neither Omid nor his wife, Palwasha, had found friends they could really talk to. Omid was also losing touch with his community from back home; it felt almost too painful to reach out. Friends of his had ended up in Turkey, England, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, and others were back in Afghanistan. "My friends say, 'Now you have reached America, and you forgot everything.'" In fact, he'd found that staying in touch had made him miss them too much. Better to focus on the present, Omid thought.

"What I am doing, and I'm sure what Palwasha is doing, is all for our kids," Omid told me. "We say to each other, and ourselves, that we lived in Afghanistan, we lived enough. So now, whatever it is, it is for our kids."

It was at about this time when Omid and Nasir began taking their midnight walks. On those chilly, quiet nights, Omid could confide in his old friend.

One night, during that first autumn, rain was falling, and Omid suggested — absurdly — that they go for a drive to check on one of Nasir's rental properties. Nasir gamely went along with it, understanding that his friend needed the company and the distraction. "Nasir was kind to me," Omid said, recalling the moment.

Sometimes, Nasir told me, he'd forget that Omid was "freshly from Afghanistan," and that some of the things he observed in Omid were only natural. "You're fearful of people, you don't trust people easily'... I'm trying to tell him, 'This is America, you have freedom. Don't be fearful.'"

"It will take a while for him to feel a sense of belonging," Nasir told me.

On a crisp sunny day that first fall, the yellow leaves resplendent against a clear blue sky, Nasir was again playing host, as he and Emily welcomed guests to Omid's front yard for an official welcome party.

Nasir's extended family prepared baklava and other treats. A local radio station was there, as well as Anne Carney, a Maine state senator. Neighbors stood about, holding cups of apple cider and cans of seltzer.

Nasir climbed to the top of a chair and beamed down at the crowd. Wearing a vest over a long white tunic and loose pants, he joked that he looked the part of a traditional Afghan, while Omid, dressed in a navy-blue fleece and jeans, easily passed for an American. Omid stood beside him, looking slightly uncomfortable, as Nasir told the story of Omid's journey.

"I don't have words for Nasir," Omid told me later. "Thank is a small word. I love him, simply,"

Nasir tells him that, if he is trying to repay him, Omid is "in the wrong friendship."

The length of your blanket

On a Friday afternoon in late July of this year, Omid's two older kids — Aref and Farzan — were hurtling through the house and yard, switching happily from game to game.

Aref was demonstrating his karate kick. Farzan had taken a blue marker to their whiteboard. "Look what I'm drawing, a ghost!" he said. Then he lined up the dry-erase markers, red, green, and black. "It's the flag of Afghanistan," he said.

By now, the boys spoke nearly perfect English. Omid told me that Farzan, in particular, preferred English. Palwasha is teaching their kids how to read and write in Pashto. She's also teaching Nasir's kids; they were all born in the US, and it's their first time taking lessons.

Later, as the boys looped around on their bikes, a neighbor from across the street came over with three zucchini from his garden. "We had extra," he said. His family is from Ukraine, and the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag hangs in his doorway.

While the kids were living very much in the moment, the adults were still finding that more difficult. They are the keepers of too many memories, and too much hinged on their decisions.

The house in Cape Elizabeth. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider The house in Cape Elizabeth. Jodi Hilton for Insider

It's not as if you can just snap your fingers and transform your life, Omid told me. But the family's progress in Cape Elizabeth was evident.

After the welcome party, a neighbor had connected Omid with an IT job in Portland. He started in December, once he'd received his Social Security number. It was a contract role, from afternoon to evening, but it allowed Omid to support the family. In early January, Omid got his driver's license and started leasing a black Highlander. "It gave me the power to get out of the house," he said.

So far, the family had made two big trips — to Virginia, nine hours away, and to Boston. On both trips, they delighted in time spent with Afghan Americans. Palwasha struck up a conversation with a woman from Pakistan, and the two women have stayed in touch. "Here, you will not find any Afghans, to at least talk with and share your feelings," Omid told me.

Still, the progress could feel halting, and Omid was still seeking a permanent legal status for his family. Omid had an unexpected surgery in the spring and took a leave from his IT job; he'd been doing food-delivery service for extra income while he planned his next steps.

Eventually, Omid would like to save up for a house, and start a business. He'd like to find work that feels challenging. He was accustomed, previously, to a comfortable life. Now, he worries that he will not be able to keep up with the wealth he sees around him, and that his kids will feel bad about it. He quoted an Afghan proverb that says you should wear the blanket that is your size, not the size of others; otherwise your feet will hang out the end and get cold. "Stretch your feet to the length of your blanket," the proverb says.

Palwasha, meanwhile, had been studying to get her driver's license. "We're having a lot of problems with the driving stuff, so she can at least come out of the house," Omid explained. "In Afghanistan, ladies drive, but it is not common. People there, if they see a lady driving, they tease her. 'Hey, you don't have a husband? Do you want a husband?'"

He looked over at his wife. "She is my power. She is my advisor," he said. "She seems quiet, but she is not."

Their neighbors have been a gift, they said. One of them, they refer to as "uncle." At various times, neighbors have dropped by to help fix the kids' bikes, lent Omid protective gear for his ears and eyes when he was spotted using a weed wacker without them, and inviting them over to pizza dinner. Together, they play basketball in one another's driveways and celebrate birthdays.

"It's nice to look out the windows and see kids out there, and hear laughter," one of their neighbors told me.

On a recent evening, the power had gone out while Omid was out delivering food. The neighbors came by with flashlights and games and kept the kids company until Omid got home. In the dark, Palwasha brought out a big tray of fruit. It was a cold evening, and they all sat together, huddled under a quilt to stay warm.

The family visited an apple orchard in nearby Falmouth. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider The family visited an apple orchard in nearby Falmouth. Jodi Hilton for Insider

'We had a beautiful life'

Omid took a seat next to Palwasha on the couch, as Safa wiggled between their laps. Omid held up his laptop and they flipped through photos, starting with their wedding.

Theirs had been an arranged marriage. It was held in Kabul, where they're both from, and 1,000 guests were there to celebrate. The two grew animated as they pointed out relatives and friends and memories from their former life. In one photo, Omid wore a shiny gray suit. Palwasha had picked it out for him. "I had about 20 suits while I was living in Afghanistan," Omid said. "And I left it all behind." He paused. "I'm the guy who never went to the office with jeans."

Omid clicked on a photo of their apartment in Kabul. It had high ceilings, and they had painted every room a different color — pink, maroon, light gray, and white. "If you get bored in one room, you go to the next room, and your mind will be changed," Omid said. "We loved these colors."

After Omid's family escaped Kabul, members of his extended family came by to collect some of their more precious items, and gave other things away. The apartment is no longer theirs.

Omid pointed to the living-room rug, with its bold flowers, and said he had paid about $3,000 for it. "I was fond of this stuff," he said. "We had a beautiful life."

Then, a photo of Omid in his office, at his last job in Afghanistan. "It was a big project," he said. "I miss it."

They paused over a family photo from the day they left. Omid stiffened on the coach and the room went still. The portal had closed, and the mood, broken.

They'd taken the picture to send to the US Marines at the airport so that they would be recognized. No one was smiling; they all looked straight at the camera, except for Safa, who stared up at the sky.

Transported back to the present, Omid stood up and stepped away from the couch.

Carnival

They'd had a late lunch — creamy shola rice — so no one was hungry. Omid and Palwasha suggested an outing.

They climbed into the Highlander, and the voice of Ahmad Zahir, singing in Dari, came on from the speakers. Palwasha relaxed into her seat. Aref's voice came from behind her: "I love family time."

Crossing the Casco Bay Bridge, Omid drives into Portland. One of his first priorities upon arriving in Maine was to get his U.S. driver’s license and acquire a car. Jodi Hilton for Insider © Jodi Hilton for Insider Crossing the Casco Bay Bridge, Omid drives into Portland. One of his first priorities upon arriving in Maine was to get his U.S. driver’s license and acquire a car. Jodi Hilton for Insider

They drove a bit, and then Omid pulled up to the Old Orchard Beach carnival. Spotting the lit-up Ferris wheel and roller coaster, the boys jumped up and down, as their mother carefully transferred Safa, already fast asleep, to a stroller.

Once inside, they passed an arcade, which Omid said reminded him of the video-game arcade they liked in Kabul. He bought a bundle of tickets, and Palwasha and the boys headed over to the Matterhorn and then the Pirate's Ship, snapping selfies as the boys shrieked with delight. Karimah, too little for most of the rides, poked her head through a cutout of a lobster's body and a Southwestern-themed scene called "Tortilla sunrise."

The family reunited at the carousel. "It smells like the ocean," Aref murmured as his horse glided up and down a gold pole.

Before too long, Karimah had claimed Safa's stroller, and Palwasha was carrying the baby. Requests for ice cream were met with gentle reminders that they had ice cream at home.

They climbed back into the Highlander, content and sleepy. Omid took out his phone. "Siri, take me home," he said. "Siri, take me home."

Russians fleeing Putin prepare for life in Serbian exile .
A group of Russian children clamour cheerfully in a Belgrade apartment, proudly shouting out the new Serbian words they've just learned to their teacher. "I definitely want to stay here," 41-year-old Muscovite artist Anna Cherepanova told AFP. The Belgrade apartment where she lives with her two children serves as an unofficial Serbian language school. © Andrej ISAKOVIC Businessman Aleksei Novikov fled to Serbia from Saint Petersburg fearing he might get drafted "The children like it here. If they didn't feel as comfortable, I would likely consider moving to another country.

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