Taking Tea, Bearing Witness, and the Gift of Serving an Afghan Family

Neil Karp

For National Volunteer Week, we're sharing this reflection from a Navy veteran on the day he helped furnish a home for an Afghan family resettling in Oregon.

After less than two years of volunteering with Team Rubicon—and more than a dozen deployments—I just finished one of my most memorable days to date. All, while moving furniture for an Afghan family in Portland.

I have built a lot of great memories in my first year as a Greyshirt: The exhausted feeling of a job well done after cutting trail on a fire mitigation project. The sense of accomplishment in working with Greyshirts from around the country to get “shots in arms” at the Portland Max Vaccination clinic, and then getting to reconnect with some of those same Greyshirts on the first flight wave to Fort Lee, Virginia, for Team Rubicon’s initial response last fall to the Afghan refugee crisis. Yet all of those pale in comparison to my experience on a recent Friday.

Some of the Greyshirt team helping resettle Afghan families in Oregon. Photo by Scott Fine.

I’d been away from the TRibe for a bit after that deployment to Fort Lee—life and health concerns intruded—so it was good to be stepping back into the arena in Portland to help resettle Afghan allies here in Oregon. That Friday, my second day back in the arena, saw us shuttling donated goods between locations. There were a  few aches and pains, but those, I notice, get mitigated by doing good for folks in need. That and the promise of a real bed and my TENS unit at the end of the day.

The day was about as Semper Gumby as it gets: Our box truck was MIA, as was our contact. Somehow, though, we ended up meeting up with one of the relocation specialists at a donor’s storage unit, where they informed us we would be delivering to a family. I had been told in my initial briefing that we would be on the backend of the op, which meant no contact with refugees—just as it had been at Fort Lee. No sweat, I’d thought, and not expected anything more.  

From the warehouse, we managed to Tetris everything into the two pickups we had available, and off we went to a simple house in a quiet Portland neighborhood. When we arrived, we discovered the husband was not home, so the coordinator had us start moving in a few things. 

Back before my deployment to Fort Lee, I’d met with a Shiite friend in Portland who had coached me on basic greetings and etiquette. Now, I tried to remember the correct etiquette. As we interacted with the family and moved things in, I let our female team members do the talking and kept my eyes down. Averting my gaze did not stop me from seeing the bareness of the home. There was hardly any furniture in the place, and two of the three kids were sleeping on blankets on the floor.

The ever-present pain in my back faded farther into the background. This is why I volunteer with Team Rubicon!

Not long after we started moving some things in, the husband arrived and picked out a few other pieces of furniture we had brought. Before long, the floor berths were gone and the kids each had a bed to sleep in, a desk to do their homework at, and a better kitchen table and chairs. Mission accomplished!

And then, the husband invited us to tea.

Right there, six of us sat in a simple home with unassuming people who had been through hell and back. There they were pulling out all the stops to show their appreciation for a couple of pieces of used furniture.

Greyshirt Neil Karp moves a mattress into a home in Oregon. Photo by Scott Fine.

Over tea, that man shared his story. He told us how he had worked as a translator not only for U.S. Special Operations Forces but also for the militaries of four or five other nations. He told us about the ongoing struggle to get his parents out as the Taliban goes door to door, and about these adorable kids—innocents in the affairs of governments gone mad. 

It became too much for me. I excused myself and went outside. I couldn’t hold back the tears. 

As an individual, there is little I can do to impact the pain and suffering in the world. I can’t change governments, get people to let go of their prejudice and hate or make them see reason. What I can do is this. Serve one person at a time. One family at a time. And, I will. 

For me, service is its own reward. And yet, I also received this: One perfect, incredibly memorable day.

In honor of National Volunteer Week, Team Rubicon is sharing Greyshirts’s stories of service and what it’s like to be a volunteer. Want to join the conversation or the TRibe? Sign up to volunteer for disaster relief and humanitarian aid missions, now.

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