A Montclair mentor’s caring helps refugees forge a new life
It has been more than 16 months since 34-year-old Mohammad, trying not to look over his shoulder at what he was leaving behind, led his young family out of Afghanistan. This was in the dead of night in August 2021, days after the government had fallen to the Taliban, turning Kabul International Airport into a funnel for tens of thousands of fleeing Afghans.
Mohammad was among them, heartsick but resolute.
Gentle, with a studious way about him, he sat the other day in the kitchen of Josh Weston’s home in Montclair and accepted the kindness of a new friend and mentor. On the table was a stack of checks bound by a rubber band, 140 in all, totaling $14,000. The checks were all made out to Mohammad.
Not long ago, his life was moving on a normal course with a burgeoning career. He could not have imagined taking a gift like this. But now, wishing to use only his middle name to protect extended family back home, he said in a soft voice, “Thank you, this will go in my account.”
Weston is a member of the board of advisers for the International Rescue Committee, devoted to assisting refugees whose lives have been upended by conflict or natural disaster. The organization is on the ground in 20 countries and helps refugees resettle.
In helping Mohammad, Weston was continuing a yearly ritual he began eight years ago – turning to friends and associates to help forced exiles like Mohammad gain a foothold in the United States. Weston said he began the undertaking to send a global message to refugees who may believe that the United States had turned its back on them.
“I wanted to show that this is the real America,” Weston said. “I wanted to show that these are the real Americans and we welcome you.”
At 94, Weston spoke in a strong, energetic voice. His accomplishments (he is the former chief executive of ADP, the giant payroll and human resources company), rather than creating a distance between himself and Mohammad, helped forge a fast bond. The two men, two generations apart, shared their life experiences with each other, each seeing a piece of himself in the other. Two hours of storytelling went by in a flash.
Weston’s father, Samuel, emigrated from Russia in 1922 with about $20 in his pocket under the aegis of an uncle, who came to him with a proposition. The uncle told him that he had lent money to a company that manufactured artificial teeth. When the company went bankrupt, the teeth became collateral for the loan.
“So my father’s uncle tells this Russian, just off the ship, to take the teeth and go sell them to dentist labs,” Weston recounted. “By the time my father retired, he had built the largest dental supply company in Brooklyn.”
First, there was struggle. Weston said his family had lived in a cramped fifth-floor cold-water flat in Flatbush. His bed was in the hallway. He went to City College in Manhattan, having to wake at 6 a.m. to take the BMT train to get to school. Finished with classes by noon, he would then work the rest of the day with his father.
The plight of refugees has never felt alien to him, Weston said. Through his father, he knew it well.
While at ADP, Weston worked to reunite two Vietnamese employees – a father and son – with the man’s wife and young daughter. The daughter had been all but lost, a number in a U.N. refugee camp in Thailand, and the mother was in Vietnam. Weston, working through a network that included a congressman, a senator and an ambassador, located her, and the family was brought together in the United States.
Out of his work with the International Rescue Committee, he created his annual effort to “adopt a refugee.”
“I like to help people,” Weston said simply.
The first refugees he assisted were a young couple, Fazal and his wife, Shabnam. The two were both well educated. Fazal had a civil engineering degree and Shabnam a law degree in Afghanistan, but Weston knew that their pedigree would not take them far in the United States. Assisted by the president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, he helped Fazal get into the school, where he earned a master’s degree. Before long, Weston said, Fazal was working for a large construction company.
Weston also helped Shabnam enter school, and in time she had two master’s degrees, one in public administration, the other in foreign policy. She now works for Rutgers Business School and lectures at Monmouth University.
Weston said that these tales touched the hearts of friends.
“Just a few weeks ago, I sent out an email asking people to write a $50 check, but look at this – you see, people wanted to send far more,” he said.
On Friday, Dec. 30, at the small table in a kitchen nook, Mohammad sat rapt and recounted his own good fortune that his path and Weston’s had met. The oldest of four, Mohammad decided to leave high school to work, reasoning that if he continued his studies only he would be educated. “This way,” he said, “I could help my brothers and sisters get their education.”
For six years, beginning when he was 18, he worked for the U.S. Army as a translator. He took high school and college courses at night, graduating from the university with a degree in business administration.
The entrepreneurship that has informed Weston’s life is threaded through Mohammad’s own journey. Mohammad created a company for leadership development before working remotely in marketing for Michigan State University.
When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, a frantic exodus ensued.
Mohammad shared a video taken at night on his phone as he and his family were entering the Kabul Airport. Not much was discernible except for the sharp cannonade of rifle shots. Taking it in once more, he seemed to shudder.
“It was very early in the morning, so it's still dark,” he said. “The Afghan and also the U.S. forces were shooting in the air to dissuade people pouring to the gate.”
In watching the video again, he revisited a lasting heartache, knowing he had left loved ones behind. Friends who also had helped the U.S. military are now living a life of “hide and seek,” trying to elude capture by the Taliban, he said.
Though Mohammad did not have a visa, his job with Michigan State had gained him special status. The school was able to extract him, his wife and children. A wayward trail has followed — through a refugee camp in Albania and three weeks of “processing” by the State Department in Washington, D.C., before the International Rescue Committee was got his family an apartment in Clifton.
Mohammed works part time in marketing for a car dealership. He constantly has his head on a swivel looking for something that fits his talents and ambitions, he said.
“I believe if you don't go through the hardship you don't enjoy the success,” he said.
Through the International Rescue Committee, he saw a posting for a mentorship program, and that is how he met Weston, first at the organization’s Elizabeth office and for the second time at Weston’s house the other day. He had no idea that a gift was waiting for him.
The two men put their arms around each other’s shoulders to pose for a picture then shook hands heartily.
“Whatever we can do to help, we have to,” Weston said. “He’s going to do great.”
Walking from Weston’s home, Mohammad said he was moved by Weston’s graciousness and generosity.
“He’s an inspiration,” Mohammad said.