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San Diego woman fills home with donations for Afghans seeking safety in U.S.

May 01, 2023May 01, 2023

When an Afghan man who had finally received a visa for his service to the U.S. military came with his family to San Diego earlier this year, they arrived in the apartment arranged for them to find no food, no kitchen gear and little support.

Then, someone gave the man the phone number of 76-year-old Tierrasanta resident Barbara Cummings. Soon, Cummings’ friend and fellow volunteer was in their home checking to see what they had and what was needed. She reported back to the informal group they’ve established to help newcomers from Afghanistan.

The man, who is not being identified because of safety concerns for family members still in Afghanistan, said his wife cried with joy when she heard they’d get help. Soon, Cummings and other volunteers arrived with items that she keeps stored in her home for when such calls come in.

"We will never forget that moment," he said.

Cummings has volunteered to help asylum seekers and refugees for years, including hosting an asylum-seeking Russian family in her home in 2017. She began helping an organization that works to fill some gaps in refugee resettlement in 2020. It was then that she first set up a small rack in her living room to store some of the items she would give to newly arrived families.

As Cummings’ dedication to the work grew, so did the stacks of items stored in her home. Now, there is hardly a room in her house that doesn't have something in it waiting for an Afghan refugee or asylum seeker in need.

"I’ve always been a caregiver. I don't want anyone to go through what I experienced," Cummings said, noting that she’d had a rough childhood. "It's like all that love was built up, and I have to give it away. It's what I’ve always done. I don't know any other way."

She feels particularly moved to help Afghans because they are fleeing the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal and the takeover by the Taliban.

Her living room is filled with bins of stuffed animals, packs of scissors, soap and underwear. Her garage holds men's clothing, diapers and women's hygiene products around and above the ping pong table where she teaches her new Afghan friends to play.

She built two storage spaces in her backyard, a shed to hold shoes and a tarp-covered tent that contains strollers and car seats.

For the women, she keeps what she calls "glam bags" packed and ready — purses with nail polish, makeup, lotion and scarves.

In her kitchen, a shelf by the table offers dates, fresh fruit and tea to her frequent guests.

Upstairs, a spare bedroom has become a storage space for kitchen goods. Even a corner of the bedroom where she sleeps has piles of donated pillows, blankets and jackets.

An Afghan man who recently crossed the border to request asylum now lives in one of the other bedrooms.

Last year, Cummings and a few others left a support group they worked with — which discouraged volunteers from hanging out with families they were helping — and launched their own effort.

They’ve since made friends who can supply bicycles and even refurbished computers to the newcomers. And they’ve expanded their offerings such as by helping Afghans enroll their children in school and taking the newcomers to medical appointments.

They have also identified a few U.S. residents who can temporarily house asylum seekers who have nowhere to live. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until six months after they submit their requests for protection in immigration court, which can make finding stable housing complicated.

"We’re small, but mighty," Cummings said.

On Sunday afternoon, laughs, giggles and yells echoed from Cummings’ backyard as she and her community of friends — Afghan and American — played on the croquet course she had assembled.

After one of the early games, as he delivered the winning shot with his mallet, one of the Afghan men turned to her and said, laughing, "Sorry, Mom!"

A former worker with the United Nations in Afghanistan, he traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border from Brazil and is waiting to request asylum in immigration court.

He has a cousin here, but the family doesn't have much space for him in its one-bedroom apartment. He bounces frequently between places and is trying to hang on until he is allowed to work.

Cummings checks on him often, making sure that he's got somewhere to sleep that night, that he has food. She helped him and several other asylum seekers pick out suits to wear in immigration court.

"They are really, really nice people," the man said of Cummings and her friends. "They are the only people that are supporting us — financially, emotionally and spiritually."