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Refugee With a Dream

“Erie is our home for years to come. I’m sure one day, Erie will be proud of us.”

Afghan refugee Saeed arrived in Erie in September 2022, joining the roughly 100 other families who were evacuated and resettled here in August 2021 after the collapse of the Afghan government. “No one wants to be a refugee,” Saeed says. “These families have been through a lot. A lot.” He tiptoes around the details of the horrors they witnessed and the impossible decisions they faced as they fled.

When they arrived in the U.S., resettlement agencies connected them to housing, SNAP benefits, and health insurance—services to meet their basic needs. Most found work, but nearly all have struggled with the language barrier. When he arrived in Erie, Saeed noted that his countrymen were surviving here, but they weren’t thriving. His mission is to change that.

Saeed has since organized English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for the Afghan community. This training, Saeed believes, will be the key that opens doors to a prosperous and meaningful life in the U.S. “They have to learn the language. If they learn the language, they can do anything,” Saeed says. A generous gift from Hamot Health Foundation made the ESL courses possible.

According to Saeed, this is just the beginning of what he has in mind. He’s worked hard to establish the Afghan Community Center, located at 4801 Peach Street, as a place where the growing Afghan population can hold classes, gather for social events, share their culture, and observe religious holidays. It is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, making Erie the only city in the state with a dedicated community space for Afghan refugees.

Through Saeed’s efforts, the community saved to acquire this community space, an impressive achievement. But, they soon realized they lacked the funding to furnish it. Saeed had no prospects for overcoming this challenge; that is, until he decided to make some phone calls. During resettlement, Saeed’s family had selected a UPMC for You health insurance product. The name stuck with him. “UPMC for You,” he says, “It’s like UPMC for me. I thought maybe they could help.” He left a voicemail at the UPMC for You office in Pittsburgh, asking about funding for furniture.

The award-winning customer service at the UPMC Health Plan did not disappoint. They passed the message along to a person perfectly positioned to help: Rebekah Garlock, health insurance navigator. She soon learned that UPMC Hamot had a large collection of unused furniture suitable for donation to the Afghan Community Center. Rebekah was elated to share the good news with Saeed. “Bring the biggest truck you can find!” she told him.

The next week, Saeed and a cadre of wiry Afghan men pulled a 30-foot UHaul into the lot. They stuffed to the top with chairs, desks, bookshelves, lamps, lockers, and recliners. Saeed could hardly find the words to express his gratitude. “Thank you,” he managed. “On behalf of my community, thank you.”

Together, this community is progressing forward through their resourcefulness and grit. They dream of opening small businesses, acquiring mortgage loans, and securing college scholarships for their high school graduates. It will take time to accomplish all they want to do. Still, Saeed fills every inch of the Community Center with his optimism and determination.

“Erie is our home for years to come,” he says, “I’m sure one day, Erie will be proud of us.”