Zarmina Hamidi was just about to start work on the second season on United States of Al, a CBS sitcom that shares the story of an Afghan interpreter living in the U.S. and the Marine combat veteran he worked with, when she watched her home country of Afghanistan fall under Taliban control.
Al was her first-ever acting gig, a role that she auditioned for on a lark and landed thanks to her knowledge of Pashto and sparkling on-screen presence. And now, just one season later, the dark premise of the lighthearted comedy was more present and painful than ever.
“Filming the first episode of the second season was a really difficult one,” she remembers, “because the whole environment had changed. United States of Al is a sitcom, but for the first episode of the second season, they took off the laugh track. When we did the table read, everybody was in tears because it was so powerful—and especially powerful for those of us who had experienced it, who had to evacuate our families out of Afghanistan.”
Zarmina had come to the United States as a refugee when she was just 9 years old and was closely involved with the Afghan community in Virginia. Within hours of the fall of Kabul, she was working with her local mosque to begin collecting donations for Afghans coming to the United States—and within weeks, she was working full-time as a case manager for Global Refuge’s newly established Northern Virginia office.
“Initially, I started as a volunteer,” she said. “Everything from collecting donations to running them to either Dulles Airport or the Expo Center, one of the first locations that Afghans were placed before they were placed in the air bases. We were running all over the place.”
Though she had never worked in case management, Zarmina remembered what it was like when she and her family were welcomed into the United States as refugees.
“I was helped when we came 34 years ago, and I knew I would love to do the same for the incoming Afghan refugees. And that’s how it started.”
Zarmina admits that the hours are long and the work is complicated, but she never regrets her snap decision to help.
“Every day is different,” she says. “Every day there’s a different challenge. Every day there’s a different need. We shed tears, we laugh…every single minute, every single second, I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Her proudest moment, she says, has been watching the Afghan arrivals she has worked with become more comfortable and confident as they start their new lives.
“One of my clients is a widow with two children. When she initially arrived, she was so scared. I remember when I called her and said, ‘I need you [at the office]. I’m going to send you an Uber.’ and she said ‘I’m not coming because I’m so scared. I don’t want to ride the Uber by myself.’”
Zarmina smiles at the memory.
“Now, she just goes and comes back all by herself. She opened a bank account. She’s applying for jobs now. It’s such a success story, and I’m so proud of her—as a woman and as an Afghan—and I’m happy that I was able to participate in her success. It makes me so happy to see my people thriving.”
At Global Refuge’s Northern Virginia office, all team members are Afghan. While some, like Zarmina, have been in the U.S. for years, the majority are new arrivals that were evacuated after the fall of Kabul.
“When I first started, I didn’t know what to expect,” she admits. “But here I am, over three months later, and I love every single one of [my colleagues]. They’re such hardworking people—so respectful—and they really care about their jobs because they’ve gone through it themselves. I can see the passion in their work.”
“I was never disconnected from Afghanistan and my community and being Afghan,” she adds, “but I’ve learned so much more from them.”
As newly arrived families continue to acclimate to their new homes, Zarmina is confident that she’ll continue to work with affected populations.
“I think this is my calling,” she says with a smile. “I mean, I love acting, but I think I could manage both.”