How a stay-at-home Ellisville mom became a lifeline for Afghan refugees
When Ann Wittman drove her minivan full of donated goods to an Afghan refugee family’s apartment last fall, she didn’t know she was about to sign up for a lifetime commitment.
Wittman was a stay-at-home mom in Ellisville, focused on raising her three sons. Then Kabul fell, and she saw a Facebook post from Welcome Neighbor STL seeking donations to help the flood of Afghan refugees being resettled in St. Louis. Volunteering to help, she was paired with the Waridk family, a couple with six children under age 9.
Wittman gathered donations from people at her church and drove them to the Waridks’ apartment. Getting to know the family has changed her life — and ultimately led her to become immersed in helping nearly 20 Afghan families resettled in St. Louis.
Many St. Louisans have stepped up to assist the refugees in St. Louis, but few have gone as far as Wittman. In the past eight months, Wittman has spearheaded six car donations from the community, helped obtain multiple washers and dryers, crowdfunded 11 plane tickets and recruited several volunteers from her parish, Ballwin’s Holy Infant Catholic Church. She calls the Waridks her “forever family” and even bought the family a house in Affton so the six kids could have a yard (and a donated trampoline).
“How often are we presented with an opportunity to change somebody's life?” Wittman asked on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I had to take it.”
At the Waridks’ home, an Afghanistan flag — nearly as large as the living room wall — hangs proudly. It’s their home country, but St. Louis is also home now. The father, Faridulla, dreams of buying his wife a Mini Cooper and, eventually, purchasing the house from Wittman.
“My kids have to grow up in St. Louis, and they have to go to school,” Faridulla Waridk said through a translator. “It would be harder for me to go to another state or move out, so I have to work here and make a future for my family.”
Waridk said Afghan families simply can’t be successful building a life in this new country without an American partner. He works at a manufacturing company making water pipes for $14 an hour. Even with overtime, he said his job is not enough for him to provide for his family. Waridk said nearly everything in his house — the furniture, the tablets, the clothes on his children’s backs — is there because of Wittman and her cousin Delia Andrews.
Helping to meet the needs of Afghans is now a full-time job for Wittman. She and Andrews regularly clock 40 hours a week shuttling families to doctor's appointments or grocery store runs and helping them wait on hold for government programs.
“We live such busy lives in America,” Wittman said. “We hardly have time for our own lives, much less adopting another family. But once you meet these families, and you realize that their needs are so simple and so easy to meet, you're willing to give your time.”
Andrews said the experience has revealed to her how privileged her life has been in the U.S., especially as a woman.
“We have phones in our pockets and driver's licenses and educations,” she said. “And we must share it. We must help these human beings. They're here sometimes not by choice necessarily, but they absolutely deserve our love and respect and our help.”
The cousins believe not every volunteer needs to clock 40 hours a week to make a difference.
“Everything moves the meter with these families,” Andrews said. “Any little contribution that can be made is at times life altering. Taking a young man to his driving test — and he passes — is an amazing gift that you've given.”
Wittman is now working her connections and crowdfunding abilities to purchase 30 used cars from local dealership Dave Sinclair. Wittman said the refugees are not able to obtain a loan with their visas, and many cannot afford a car. That makes them vulnerable to being taken advantage of by shady operators selling used cars.
Wittman wants to prevent that, so she started the nonprofit HumanKind STL.
“We can buy cars — affordable, reliable cars for these families, and just start them out with a solid foundation,” Wittman said.
A few weeks ago, while at the dentist’s office, Faridulla Waridk asked Andrews how long she and Wittman intend to help his family. Her answer: forever.
“We will see these children graduate from high school,” Andrews said. “We will see them get married someday or drive cars. There is no expiration on that. Our commitment isn't for the next six months or until you are on your own. ... We will always be involved with this family. They have touched our hearts, and we hope we have touched theirs as well.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.