Volunteer mentors from Catholic charities help young Afghans bridge a cultural gap

Ali Dawoodi arrived in Northern Virginia from Afghanistan about two years ago, just before the coronavirus hit. His father had worked in the United States for several years and was finally able to bring his family to join him. Dawoodi, the eldest son, had finished high school and was interested in pursuing college and a career in the United States.

But there was so much to learn.

“Everything was new to me,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about the culture, about English, about how to communicate with people.”

His father heard about a program that seemed perfect for Dawoodi, now 21. Called Mentoring Youth in Virginia (MYVA), it is offered through Diocesan Catholic Charities, one of the leading organizations that has resettled more than 8,500 Afghan refugees to Northern Virginia in the past few years.

A state program funded by a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, MYVA supports the educational and career advancement of refugee adolescents and young adults ages 15-24. Young people are matched with trained mentors, who work with them for about a year. The program also offers online college preparation workshops and guest speakers on career-related topics.

Dawoodi was paired with Jerry Edwards of South Riding, a business professional who has volunteered with youth and literacy organizations for over 20 years. When the pandemic ended many in-person volunteer opportunities, Edwards switched to online mentoring through Catholic charities and began meeting Dawoodi on Zoom twice a week for an hour, surpassing the program requirement of four hours per month.

“I can only imagine if I moved to another culture, how difficult it would be,” said Edwards, who first focused on helping Dawoodi work on his English, then moved on. is extended to American culture, job interviews and other topics.

A regional district manager for the ULTA beauty chain, Edwards spends a lot of time on the road visiting outlets. So, in addition to Zoom meetings, he invited Dawoodi, from Alexandria, to call him on the phone, where he can chat from his car through a speakerphone. “He can ask me anything – nothing is off limits,” Edwards said, adding that they discussed everything from vocabulary and pronunciation to Americans’ widely varying views on immigration.

“It’s very difficult to do English as a second language (ESL) via Zoom. But Ali had a positive attitude that exceeded my expectations every day,” Edwards said. “If I gave him 25 words to learn, he was learning 50. He was beyond any kind of curriculum we could give him and was learning way faster than I ever imagined.”

Stephen Decker, a youth support specialist with Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, said the MYVA program is designed to support newcomers who find themselves “at that crucial crossroads between high school and college, like the big kids.” brothers and older sisters.

Diocesan Catholic Charities has worked with around 75 clients so far, and more mentors are needed to work with other clients. It takes about a month for volunteers to undergo training and background checks.

Decker said the benefits of the program extend far beyond the young adults served. “It helps strengthen our community by building bridges between people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet and helping them learn about each other’s cultures.”

Dawoodi, now a confident English speaker who drives and goes to the gym, said having a mentor to ask about “life in the United States, people, business and college” has been helpful. great help in achieving your goals. He is pursuing a degree in Information Technology and Software Development at Northern Virginia Community College.

He has a data entry job and works for an online computer help desk to help his family of seven (mom, dad, a 23-year-old sister and three younger brothers, ages 18, 8 and 7 months ). Previously, he honed his professional skills at Taco Bell (where he discovered the taste of tacos) and at Amazon. He also took JAVA programming courses on YouTube.

Now considered a graduate of the MYVA program, Dawoodi is “very disciplined to study, pray, exercise and work to help support his family,” Edwards said.

“We live in a very multicultural region and you can meet people from all over the world. I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Ali and his family and learn about their foods and culture.”

He now mentors three other teenagers online, but expects to keep in touch with Dawoodi, either to help him or to encourage his continued successes.

“In some relationships, I don’t know if it ever ends,” Edwards said. “I’m not going anywhere and he knows I’m always available.”

Learn more

April is National Volunteer Month. Learn about Catholic Charities programs to support Afghan refugees in bit.ly/Help-for-refugees or volunteer to be a mentor by emailing [email protected] or by calling 703/677-2682.

James C. Tibbs