A Burmese photographer fled his country and left everything behind — now he needs your help
By Staff | Photographs by Hong Sar
Aziza Aliyar during a lesson at Rogers Driving School in Pittsburgh. Team Zubair funded her lessons. She arrived in the U.S. from Afghanistan, and as the oldest child in her family is working to help care for her three siblings. // Hong Sar
Inspired by one family, this nonprofit is boosting a grant program to help those fleeing oppression pay for housing, learn to drive, and get cars~
By Kimberly Palmiero
Like a house, a car is part of the American dream: It represents mobility and independence.
That’s why the nonprofit known as Team Zubair, based in Washington, D.C., is boosting efforts to expand a grant program that gets more new arrivals to the U.S. driving lessons and cars.
“It is not easy to leave everything behind and move to a new country, new environment, and try to start a life from scratch, especially when you don’t know the language and are not mobile,” said advisory board member Iffat Idrees, a native of Pakistan who helped launch the grants-for-cars program.
Idrees moved to the U.S. in 1974 with her husband, a Pakistani–born physician who attended school in the States. She remembers adjusting to life in an unfamiliar country, with no family.
“Not being able to drive and move around freely makes life even more difficult,” she said.
Since last year, Idrees, nonprofit co-founder Karin Nunan and other volunteers have raised more than $100,000 to support housing, immediate needs, and mobility grants for asylum seekers and other new arrivals.
In 2022, 11 people were awarded grants to take driving lessons, get down payments for vehicles, or both. Down payment grants are up to $2,000.
Grants are available to qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis to people who have a learner’s permit and have been in the U.S. less than 24 months after fleeing for their safety.
Team Zubair started focusing on ways to help new arrivals in a way that wouldn’t duplicate existing efforts — and found, from surveying people, that besides housing, transportation was the greatest challenge for some living in Postindustrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
“When we founded IHSAN [the nonprofit umbrella under which Team Zubair now operates] in 2008, our goal was simple — engage volunteers to help disadvantaged communities gain access to basic services to improve their lives. It is a dream, after so many years, to finally be working in our own communities here in the U.S.,” said Nunan, a sustainability consultant and former U.S. diplomat.
It’s not a matter of convenience. Some people would have greater opportunities for a better job, or job training, with the freedom of owning a vehicle.
In his request for a grant, Munibullah Zuhoori, living in a suburb of Pittsburgh, wrote: “One of the big obstacles in improving my life is the lack of having a car.
“I commute to work two and half hours a day by bicycle. I have concern(s) about (the) coming of winter and how to deal and cope with it,” he said.
Support Team Zubair today. Your donation is tax-deductible.Donate now
Aziza Aliyar is also learning to drive with the support of Team Zubair. She arrived in the U.S. from Afghanistan, and as the oldest child in her family is working to help care for her three siblings.
“Right now, it is very hard for me to manage time for work, shopping, going to doctor appointments, etc. by bus. It is harder during winter. A car will definitely change our lives,” she wrote.
Aliyar and her family live in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, where winters can turn a once-simple commute into a three-hour trek due to icy road conditions.
Noorullah Ameeri, a former special forces soldier in Afghanistan, recently obtained his learner’s permit and is taking driving lessons through Rogers Driving School in Pennsylvania.
With a car, he says, “I will be able to save some money because I spend a lot using Uber for taking my family members to their doctor appointments.”
He rises at 5 a.m. and takes the bus to work each day.
Ameeri shared his story with Postindustrial in 2021, just after he arrived in the U.S.
Former Special Forces soldiers Silab left, and Noorullah Ameeri, right, at an Extended Stay Hotel in Coraopolis, Pa., while in 2021 they were awaiting permanent housing in the Pittsburgh area. // Martha Rial
The 2021 drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and subsequent takeover by the Taliban prompted about 1 million Afghans to flee the country, seeking refuge from the fundamentalist, jihadist regime.
The Team Zubair initiative was inspired by the journey of journalist Zubair Babakarkhail.
It’s an effort powered by individual donations from people around the world and operated solely by volunteers.
With the help of seven friends in six time zones, Babakarkhail, with his wife and three children, escaped Afghanistan in 2021.
In this Aug. 16, 2021, file photo U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hundreds of Western nationals and Afghan workers were flown to safety since the Taliban reasserted control over the country. Yet still unprotected, and in hiding, were untold numbers of Afghans who tried to build a fledgling democracy. They include Afghans who worked with foreign forces, and who are now stranded and being hunted by the Taliban, along with aid workers. // AP Photo/Shekib Rahmani, File
The group spontaneously came together to help get the Babakarkhails to safety and, then, to secure housing in the United States.
Postindustrial documented their flight and experience in the States, where Zubair has become a leader helping others resettling in the U.S.
Postindustrial members and supporters followed as we detailed the journey and helped us raise funds to support the family.
He is now on the advisory board of Team Zubair.
To make a tax-deductible donation to this all-volunteer organization, go to teamzubair.org.
If you know someone who would benefit from a grant, here is the application.
Kim Palmiero is CEO & Editor-in-Chief of Postindustrial Media. She previously served as a managing editor for Trib Total Media in Pennsylvania. Prior to Postindustrial, she provided consulting for media outlets to develop growth strategies. She is a past president and current board member of the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, an advisory board member of Team Zubair, and a member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Reach her at email@example.com.
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