Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Ryan Pelosky”

Away from the headlines, local groups help Afghan refugees adjust to N.C. life

More than four million refugees have fled Ukraine since February, dominating headlines around the world. Yet closer to home, Afghans who fled during the U.S. withdrawal from the country eight months ago are still arriving, and Triangle resettlement agencies are still helping evacuees build new lives. 

“I know that it seems like ancient history to the news cycles, but, for us, it’s daily life,” said Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham. 

While the initial wave of hundreds of arrivals has subsided, arrivals continue. Despite strong community support, local resettlement workers face obstacles at nearly every turn. Afghan refugees face unique legal challenges, as many are not guaranteed permanent legal status in the United States. Short-term housing, permanent housing and language-appropriate mental health counseling also remain critical needs. “Ukraine, in many ways, is making it easy to forget what just happened a few months ago. But, I think the community has not forgotten,” Clark said. 

When Kabul fell on Aug. 15, 2021, professionals across the refugee resettlement community braced for an unprecedented surge in cases. More than 70,000 Afghans would flee the country for the U.S. in the months that followed. “We knew this would be a situation that has never happened before in the United States in the resettlement of refugees,” said Omer Omer, North Carolina field office director for the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). “Usually, it’s very structured, well organized. But this is completely out of plan.”

Resettlement organizations found themselves heavily unprepared and under-resourced for the influx of cases. The surge of refugees came on the heels of the Trump’s administration’s lowering of the refugee ceiling. President Barack Obama’s refugee ceiling for fiscal year 2017 was 110,000. President Donald Trump set the ceiling for fiscal year 2021 at 15,000, and last year, the United States accepted just 11,411 refugees. 

Then came the news in August and September that thousands of Afghan refugees were headed to the U.S. , including North Carolina. 

“The biggest challenge was the short timeframe. Most of the time, we know months ahead of time when a new population is going to come. In some cases, we had 24 to 48 hours, from notification to arrival of a new family to serve,” Clark said. 

Omer’s USCRI North Carolina field office first proposed it could take 100 refugees following Kabul’s fall. In the two months that followed, the office received over 260. 

Seven months after Afghans first began arriving in the Triangle, volunteer response remains strong, yet substantial challenges remain. 

When refugees first arrive, resettlement organizations look to be as welcoming as possible. “You want to ensure that they receive a culturally appropriate meal when they arrive,” Omer said.

The next focus becomes short-term housing, followed by permanent housing. Durham volunteers have helped with both, Clark said.

“The level of community support has been tremendous,” Clark said. “People offer their homes, their land, their cars.” 

Volunteers have furnished apartments for incoming families, buying furniture, decorations, appliances and more. “We want to make the house just as perfect as we can,” said Nancy Cook, who prepares homes for Church World Service.

Even so, long-term housing remains out of reach for many Afghan families.

USCRI still houses about 25% of its refugees in hotels because permanent housing has not been available. “Being in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in our region and suddenly having such a large number of people to welcome is a challenge,” Clark said. 

Afghan evacuees also face daunting legal challenges as they attempt to secure their future in the United States. The U.S. granted the vast majority of recent Afghan arrivals humanitarian parole status, which allows individuals “who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States to be in the United States for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Many of those Afghan parolees have a pathway to stay in the U.S. lawfully, through having American citizen family members or access to Special Immigrant Visas, which can grant permanent residence to evacuees who aided the U.S. abroad. More than 36,000 Afghans, however, lack these routes. Their only option for remaining in the U.S. legally is to file for asylum by proving that they meet the definition of a refugee—until then, legally, they are considered “evacuees.”

“I think many, many, many Afghan evacuees will meet the definition of a refugee,” said Shane Ellison, supervising attorney at Duke Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “But it’s a really long and difficult process to apply for asylum in the United States. If those asylum applications are not granted, then that 36,000 are at the mercy of Congress and the executive [branch].”

Mental health care is another vital concern for local agencies. Afghan evacuees struggle to look ahead when their journeys to the United States come so quickly after encountering extreme trauma and violence. 

“These refugee families are coming fresh with traumatic experiences,” said Clark.

Even in normal cases, where families spend years in the transition process, roughly 40% of refugees are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“Refugees may have been in a camp for years, or even decades, and it takes quite a long time to get to us,” Clark said, “In this case, it was very unique to have folks coming, being able to talk about fleeing from the Taliban just a couple of weeks ago.”

The trauma branches from a variety of evacuee experiences: “They left their loved ones in Afghanistan, the house that they struggled for, they left all of these things just in a matter of two weeks. They have lived in camps, sometimes for months. There is a lack of information about life in the United States, so the expectation and the reality are two totally different things,” said Ahmad, a local Afghan resettlement worker who asked that his surname not be disclosed for the sake of his family’s safety. 

After months of settling families, local volunteer Marian Abernathy still sees refugees struggling with their trauma. “Most of the volunteers do not have the background or skills to provide that kind of trauma counseling or care. I think that’s a big need, particularly for providers who are speaking Dari and Pashto,” said Abernathy, a co-chair of the social action committee at Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation. 

Establishing employment and routines can help refugees feel a part of American society, refugee resettlement workers say. With this, also, resettlement workers say the community has offered essential support: “Employment is not an issue, a long time ago, it was,” Omer said.

Looking ahead, Ahmad says he hopes local residents will remember what Afghan refugees have endured as they continue to adjust to life in North Carolina. 

“If you see an Afghan with a different outfit or a different mindset, or if you see an Afghan who cannot speak your language, I would say please be patient with them. And please help them to the extent you can, because they need time to become part of the community.”

For information on how to help Afghan refugees, contact:

Above: Sebghatullah Jalali and Shane Ellison of Duke Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic are assisting Afghan refugees with daunting legal challenges. Photo by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 


Black entrepreneurs on doing business in Durham today

Durham has long been a beacon of Black entrepreneurship. The nation’s second-oldest African American bank, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, once America’s largest Black-owned and -operated life insurance company, were both located on West Parrish Street, helping the street earn the byname “Black Wall Street.” In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington praised Durham for its Black enterprise, while W. E. B. DuBois hailed “The Upbuilding of Black Durham.” Black-owned businesses struggled in the late 20th century due to factors including integration and urban renewal, which razed much of the Hayti community. In recent years, however, Black entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the Bull City. With this history in mind, we spoke to founders of three Durham Black-owned businesses about their journeys.

Celebrating Black literary traditions

When Beverley Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo opened Rofhiwa Book Café in May 2021, they filled a perceived gap in the East Durham community. 

“What I think had been lacking was places to exchange ideas that are focused upon particularly Black literary traditions,” said Yaziyo, Rofhiwa’s curator and a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Duke. 

Rofhiwa means “we have been given/blessed” in Tshivenda, a language spoken by the Venda people of South Africa. With an expansive selection of books by Black authors, foreign and domestically published, as well as hot and cold drinks and a welcoming seating area for customers to read and work, Rofhiwa has built an environment for customers to relax, read and discuss Black literature. 

The two South African entrepreneurs carry “a very global selection” but face constraints due to limited printing runs of books printed outside the United States. As a result, the store may hold just one copy of a given book at a time.

“Sometimes it means we traveled to South Africa and packed books in a suitcase to bring back to the store,” Yaziyo said. “We have to make do with what we have.” 

Makhubele and Yaziyo launched Rofhiwa using crowdfunding, raising over $40,000 on Kickstarter with an average donation of around $15. 

“Like most young Black entrepreneurs, we were not in a position to approach a bank for a loan,” Makhubele said. “We don’t come from independently wealthy families. Crowdfunding was an obvious option.” 

The store is “Black in the way that we think about our selection, the way that we choose our selection and how we would go about seeking community partnerships and vendors,” Makhubele said. The two were conscious of this message when searching for their storefront’s location, Makhubele said. “We knew it had to be a Black neighborhood.”

“It was important for us to make a thing in a place that was and felt like home,” said Makhubele, a Durham resident of six years. “East Durham is home.” 

Makhubele is also excited and inspired by Durham’s Black businesses. 

“I think the most fascinating thing to me about this moment for Black business in Durham is seeing young entrepreneurs being bold enough to start businesses that are not necessarily traditional, or that are not necessarily addressing an emergent need but are more leisure-focused, that are more interested in putting together different things,” Makhubele said. “I find it very exciting to watch young entrepreneurs introduce these very interesting and creative concepts to the Durham market.”

The co-founders are eager to achieve more as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Naledi and I are very interested in the different ways that we can use our space, not just for literature, but how the space can become a more dynamic one for the arts, for music, for live performance, for all kinds of things,” Makhubele said. Makhubele hopes to continue “building it up with good bones, enough that someone might look at it and say, ‘something’s happening in East Durham, and that’s worth my time.’”

Remembering Durham’s Black business history 

Downtown Durham’s North Carolina Mutual building serves as a physical reminder of the city’s vibrant history of Black entrepreneurship. North Carolina Mutual is shutting down this year after some 123 years in business. But for decades it was a pillar of American Black business.

Seeking to uphold and add to this legacy, Carl Webb co-founded Provident1898 in 2019 with co-founder Peter Cvelich. Provident, a Black-centric shared workspace for innovators and entrepreneurs, occupies a 15,000 square-foot facility on the concourse level of the historic Mutual Tower. Provident1898’s name pays homage to NC Mutual, which was founded in 1898 and was originally called NC Mutual and Provident Association. 

“Let’s look at what [NC Mutual] did 120, almost 125 years ago, and how we can use that as a way to be inspired for what the next generation can do,” Webb said. “We wanted to provide some progressive and positive ways of building the community, similar to the founders of NC Mutual.”

Reminders of Durham’s rich history of Black businesses line Provident’s walls. The original sign from the entrance to Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Parlor—where the Royal Ice Cream sit-in took place in 1957, more than two years before the famous Greensboro sit-in—hangs prominently in Provident’s lounge. Provident’s conference rooms are named for Durham’s Black leaders, including John Merrick, the founder of NC Mutual, Charles Clinton Spaulding, who presided over NC Mutual for several decades and Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, Durham’s first Black doctor and a leader of the Hayti community.

Provident offers offices, desks, meeting rooms and a lounge to both small businesses and solopreneurs. Provident’s partners include non-profits like the Durham Public Schools Foundation and profit making businesses like Hayti, a Black news media app. 

Webb has spent almost 40 years as an entrepreneur in marketing communications and urban development. Cvelich has also spent much of his career in urban planning. 

The endeavor has special resonance for Webb, a Durham native.

“Being in a community where I’ve had the benefit of seeing Black entrepreneurs and business people accomplish significant things, I never quite felt like it was a stretch to want to start a business,” Webb said. “I saw the people starting businesses, so those role models and examples were really, really helpful for me very, very, very early on.”

Webb is optimistic about the young business. 

“We are committed to doing the work, and the hope is that the market will find what we’re offering to be something that’s worthy of support,” he said. “I’m encouraged that the indication so far says yes, but it’s not going to be easy.” 

Webb is hopeful for the future of Black business in Durham more broadly, too. Webb sees progress with the North Carolina IDEA Fund, the Greater Durham Black Chamber of Commerce and other similar organizations. Still, he says, obstacles remain.

“The real question is, what will the stakeholders and leaders, both public and private, do about closing the opportunity gap?” Webb said. “We need to continue to focus on shared economic prosperity, and we, as a community, can’t sustain by having such a huge gap between the haves and have-nots.” 


Serving up fusion cuisine 

In 2015, Toriano Fredericks was working on an offshore oil drillship, serving long stints at sea. That year, he and his wife, Serena Fredericks, launched their Boricua Soul food truck, which serves Latino-Soul fusion cuisine, and operated it during Toriano Fredericks’ four-week breaks between trips. 

“For a couple of years, we ran the truck and tested our concept while still having a day job, essentially,” Toriano said.

In 2018, he left his job to operate the truck full-time.

In November 2019, the Fredericks opened a storefront in the center of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. Named for the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico, Boricua pairs the Fredericks’ Puerto Rican and Georgian grandmothers’ love of cooking with dishes like barbecue empanadas or chicharrones de pollo, a Puerto Rican-style fried chicken dish. 

Boricua’s large patio, half-open kitchen and indoor murals commemorating Durham’s history give the restaurant a communal feel. Toriano and Serena work front-and-center, across all open hours, bringing food from the kitchen to Boricua’s customers. 

Showcasing other Black-owned businesses is a priority for the Fredericks. Boricua has collaborated with or purchased goods from Black-owned Pine Knot Farm, Spaceway Brewing and Shoe Crazy Wines. Throughout the year, the Fredericks feature other Black-owned businesses on their social media. 

Less than five months after they opened their storefront, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the couple to temporarily shut down the business. Despite its welcoming indoor space, Boricua has not offered indoor dining since before the pandemic.

“We opened the restaurant going into a slow period going into the winter and then COVID hits, so we really didn’t ever have a chance to get a feel of the landscape,” Toriano Fredericks said.

“I think the fact that we don’t have restaurant experience has helped in a way because we just aren’t sure how anything should be done,” he said. “So we’re just constantly trying things out and being open-minded to them.”

Support from the Durham community has been the only constant for the Fredericks since opening in 2019, they said. That support instills optimism about the future of their business – cautious optimism, that is. While Durham’s recent growth has brought more customers, rent rates have increased. Meanwhile, COVID-19 led to labor shortages. 

“I’d like to be able to execute what we said we were going to do with the menu when we opened up,” Serena Fredericks said. “We haven’t been able to really add things to our menu just because of labor difficulties.” 

Emerging from the pandemic, the Fredericks hope to make Boricua Soul a community staple. Said Toriano Fredericks, “That ability to gather and have people come together is something we’re definitely looking forward to doing again, or doing at all.”

Above: Photos of Beverley Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo, co-owners of Rofhiwa Book Cafe, by 9th Street Journal photographer Simran Prakash.  Photos of Carl Webb and Peter Clevich of Provident1898 and Toriano Fredericks of Boricua Soul by 9th Street Journal photographer Kulsoom Rizavi.