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'The Afghan in us never leaves' | Family who fled Afghanistan in the 80s helps welcome refugees

After leaving their home, the Popal family started a thriving restaurant business. Recently, their Afghan bistro has turned into a donation center for refugees.
Credit: TEGNA

WASHINGTON — Emotions overwhelmed Washington, D.C., business owner Fatima Popal as she followed the news of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. 

"I think I probably spent the first six or seven days crying," she said.

"I think that whole point of feeling helpless is one of the worst points."

Images of ominous gun-wielding militants, families stranded at the Kabul airport, and Afghans chasing down improbable chances for evacuations on the tarmac struck Popal emotionally. 

Though she was only 6 months old at the time, Popal and her family survived a similar exodus from their homeland of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. 

Popal's father Zubair, a general manager at the InterContinental Hotel in Afghanistan, was a target, and fled the country quickly. Fatima, her mother and her two siblings followed after him. The family bounced from Bahrain to India to the United Arab Emirates, waiting for the violence in Afghanistan to end. 

It didn't.

"Nobody wants to leave their homeland. I'll tell you, a lot of Afghans would never leave their homeland if they were at peace," Popal said. 

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In 1987, the Popals came to the U.S., living on expired tourist visas until their asylum case was processed. 

"I remember coming here to the US with pretty much nothing. We were illegal immigrants at that time," Popal said. 

Despite their meager start in the U.S., the Popals eventually built a successful family business in Washington, D.C. Today, they own a handful of restaurants, including an Afghan eatery called Lapis, where Fatima's mother Shamim serves her own recipes. 

Over the years, Lapis has become a gathering place for the Afghan community. The interior, warm and inviting, invokes a traditional Afghan coziness. Many of the servers are also refugees. 

So it seemed only natural that the space would turn into a command center for refugee aid. The Popals hoped they could help other Afghans have an easier start in their new home. 

"It’s not easy coming from a life of where they just came from and trying to understand and learn a new culture. We went through a lot of that ourselves," she said. 

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After putting out a call for help on social media, the restaurant was overwhelmed with donations.

On a Friday in August, volunteers gathered in the downstairs bar, Lapop, sorting through mountains of donated clothes, hygiene products and school supplies. Popal is coordinating with nonprofits and aid organizations to connect the donations with families starting off in the U.S. with nothing. 

Josie McCartney, 15, was one of the volunteers who came to help make sense of the chaos. A student herself, she felt moved to help after feeling despair for the women and girls trapped in Afghanistan. 

"I think that it’s terrible that all these women and girls are going to lose their rights because I really value education," she said.

"It's really tough to feel helpless," Popal said.

"So that's why I said the only way I can channel my energy is trying to help the people that are coming through here and at least trying to give them a good start to life," she said. 

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