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For Afghan refugees, traditional rugs offer comfort

Rugs are so central to Afghan culture they often are used as currency. So it is a shock when refugees must leave their rugs behind. Having a traditional rug in their new place can help them adjust.

Shams Frough at his store Kapisa Rugs, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021 in Evanston, Ill.
Shams Frough at his store Kapisa Rugs in Evanston. Frough, who moved to the United States from Afghanistan in 2014, helps new arrivals from that country get traditional rugs for their homes.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Shams Frough couldn’t believe what he was seeing on the news at the end of August. As U.S. forces prepared to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban were seizing more and more of the country he calls home.

Frough owns Kapisa Rugs, an Evanston shop specializing in traditional Afghan rugs. He also was just days away from taking the Medical College Admissions Test to become a doctor.

But he could not bring himself to study. He rescheduled the test; he now plans to take it in April and apply for 2023 admissions.

“With what was going on in Afghanistan and with my family, I couldn’t focus on anything,” said Frough, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan a decade ago and came to the United States on a special immigrant visa in 2014.

As hundreds of Afghan refugees were arriving in the Chicago area, Frough thought of something he could do: He’s helping to clean and deliver traditional rugs to the homes of the new arrivals.

Rugs are so central to Afghan culture they often are used as currency. So it is a shock when refugees must leave their rugs behind. Having a traditional rug in their new place can help them adjust.

“In the U.S., not everyone has a rug or carpet at home and in Afghanistan, you definitely do,” Frough said. “Even if the economy is really bad, you’re going to have some sort of carpet on the floor.”

More than 500 Afghan refugees have resettled in the Chicago area since September, according to the Cook County Board. In 2022, they expect 3,000 more.

A few weeks ago, Frough posted on the Facebook page of Refugee Community Connection, a neighborhood network distributing donated clothing and other necessities to refugee families.

Frough had watched as strangers offered beds, toys, clothes and sometimes carpets to the Afghan refugees. Organizers require that items be new or in like-new condition and clean, so he offered to arrange a discount so the group could save money on cleaning any rugs donated to the group.

Traditional Afghan rugs on display at Shams Frough’s Evanston shop, Kapisa Rugs.
Traditional Afghan rugs on display at Shams Frough’s Evanston shop, Kapisa Rugs.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Frough said cleaning traditional rugs can be expensive; at roughly $3 per square foot, larger rugs can cost $300 or more.

But through his connections, he was able to cut that price in half; donors and the refugee assistance group cover that cost.

By early January, Frough will have helped clean and deliver 10 rugs to refugee families.

“Rugs are one of the only exporting industries from Afghanistan and weaving rugs has survived the times of war,” Frough said. “Rugs are also one of the only good things that introduce us to the world besides violence and all the negatives that go on there.”

Frough has returned to Afghanistan twice with his wife, most recently in March. Each time, he brought back rugs to sell in his shop. The weavers are grateful for the business; many have been hard-pressed to find buyers, either at home or abroad, since the Taliban takeover, Frough said.

His wife, Liza Frough, said Afghanistan is often misunderstood by outsiders.

“Almost every nation and culture is identified with something in the U.S.,” Liza Frough said. “Afghanistan and its people are judged by the never-ending war. Rugs woven in Afghanistan can help change that understanding.”

Nan Warshaw founded Refugee Community Connection in 2017, and since then, the group has grown “organically” into an all-volunteer network.

“Most of these families had to evacuate Afghanistan very quickly and even if they were able to pack a suitcase, many of them weren’t even allowed to take suitcases on the planes,” Warshaw said. “Having things that look like home make a big difference and having rugs covering all their apartments is hugely comforting.”

Warshaw said when a resettlement agency in Chicago places refugees in an apartment, those apartments usually have just beds and a little furniture. Typically, Afghans would have rugs throughout their homes.

Mailee Garcia, a spokeswoman for Heartland Alliance, one of the resettlement agencies, said the organization’s assistance includes “welcome kits” intended to ease the transition.

Though local nonprofits donate the essentials, Warshaw said other forms of comfort are needed for refugees suddenly immersed in a new culture.

“A home is not furnished to them unless there are rugs covering everything,” Warshaw said. “Having the rugs, I would say, is the first step to furnishing an apartment.”

As a result, rugs are a popular item at the no-charge stores operated by the group.

“We get rugs donated, but they go so quickly,” Warshaw said, “so we never have enough donated rugs.”