Sumaira Akbarzada, Contributing Photographer

Sumaira Akbarzada was just around five years old when her family came to the United States as Afghan refugees in the 1990s. Even as a young child, she said she had memories of the resettlement process and remembered how it could be very traumatic for families. When she heard about the Afghanistan humanitarian crisis last August, Akbarzada said she felt like “[the crisis] is just everything that’s happening all over again.” 

Akbarzada had just graduated from the Yale School of Public Health last summer and was working as the community liaison for SalivaDirect, a saliva-based COVID-19 testing program developed at SPH. Since she was working in public health, Akbarzada got the idea to provide free COVID-19 testing for Afghan evacuees that had come to New Haven. 

After months of planning, a new COVID-19 community testing program, “New Home, New Haven,” started in early January to offer free weekly testing to Afghan evacuees, along with other refugees and immigrants. The program was created through a partnership by the Yale School of Public Health’s SalivaDirect project and the New Haven-based nonprofit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, with $40,000 in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, an American-based philanthropy organization. To date, around 350 Afghan evacuees have arrived in New Haven, according to IRIS. In its fifth week of testing, “New Home, New Haven” has tested over 200 people with about a dozen Afghan evacuees visiting the clinic each week. 

“This project is very special to me because I feel like I can actually do something,” Akbarzada said. “I felt like I’m so privileged to be studying at one of the best academic institutions in the world so when the humanitarian crisis took place, I just wanted to use my connections to do something for the Afghan families coming to New Haven.” 

The clinic runs every Wednesday at the IRIS community center where individuals can show up and take a free COVID-19 saliva PCR test. Individuals can receive free tests for five consecutive weeks. The Yale Pathology Labs at the Yale School of Medicine will process 2,000 saliva tests at a discounted rate, and patients receive their results within 24 hours.

The program aims to be accessible for the new Afghan evacuees, both in terms of cost and language. 

Akbarzada said that in Afghanistan, a COVID-19 test can cost $100 while the average monthly income is $300. She explained that not many families could afford to do a COVID-19 test, and while the evacuees are vaccinated, this may be the first time they had received a test. She added that it may be especially important for the newly arrived families to receive regular testing because the evacuees are often living in congregated, tight spaces when they first arrive, with host families or two or three other families. 

“There’s no social distancing,” Akbarzada said. “That’s why it is important for them to get tested so that they can protect themselves, their kids, and the host families they are living with.” 

To address language barriers, the program also provides translated COVID-19 education materials in Persian and Pashto, languages most commonly spoken in Afghanistan. Akbarzada said that for the Afghan evacuees, while the father often knows English, the rest of the family likely does not, making translation services vital. 

Elena’s Light, a service organization for refugees founded and operated by Afghan women, has also been helping make the testing accessible to refugees and immigrants. ​​Fereshteh Ganjavi, the founder of Elena’s Light and an Afghan refugee herself, said the organization has been holding vaccination clinics for refugees in the past. Most recently, Elena’s Light has been helping provide translated documents and in-person translation services on testing days for the “New Home, New Haven” program.

“Without communication and no way to talk, it’s hard to do these tests,” Ganjavi said. “I’m so happy and we are proud we were able to help them and do this process fast and accurately.” 

The program also worked with a group of Afghan-American physicians from the Genesis Medical Group that is providing free medical support to Afghan evacuees. One of the physicians leading the program, Y. Zachariah Azar, said that this group has helped dictate test results in patients’ native languages in New Haven and other states.

Akbarzada underscored the importance of ensuring that COVID-19 testing was accessible to the newly arrived families. She said she talked to an Afghan father at the clinic who had been trying to make a COVID-19 test appointment at CVS or Walgreens for his kids. 

“He said, first of all, just making the appointment was hard for him with the language barrier,” Akbarzada said. “And all of the slots were taken for days.” 

Hannah Crosby, the IRIS project coordinator for the “New Home, New Haven” program, said the testing program was also a way to welcome the evacuees into the community. While it can be challenging for the new families to come to the clinic without transportation, Crosby added that IRIS arranges lifts or staff members pick up families themselves. 

Crosby noted that it is not just Afghan evacuees, but other clients or staff members at IRIS that can come and get tested. 

“As part of Yale, it’s so easy for us to go and get tested and we can do that any day,” Crosby said. “But at least in this scenario, this community can count on it once a week.” 

According to the SPH press release, IRIS expects to support as many as 700 evacuees from Afghanistan as a result of the exodus.

Sai Rayala reports on Yale-New Haven relations. She previously covered climate and environmental efforts in New Haven. Originally from Powell, Ohio, she is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College majoring in History.