In this piece we catch up with Richard Herbst, a Colorado Succeeds board member and President of TTEC Foundation. Richard passionately recounts his story with the Azimis, an Afghan refugee family in Denver. Richard also tells how his involvement with The Succeeds Prize comes full circle, as he helps the Azimis navigate the American school system.
What sparked your interest, have you always been passionate about refugee issues?
My general interest started about a year ago, when we saw what was happening in Afghanistan, seeing our military on the ground in a really difficult situation and people fleeing, and people left behind. That had an impact as I served twenty years in the military as a navy pilot, and I also know a lot of people who have served over there.
We later came to learn about the African Community Center, an organization in Denver that processes and supports refugee families, not just from Africa, but from all over the world.
You learned about this community center, and you decided to sign up and help?
We learned about their need for help in sponsoring families and signed up for the First Friends program to become a resource for a refugee family. We have helped to facilitate their integration to the United States, and navigate everyday things like – How take the bus? How to get a driver’s license? How to access schools, medical care and other essential things.
After a six-hour training, we were paired up with the Azimi family from Afghanistan. Mohammad, who worked for the US Government, and his family were flown out by U.S military on the last day of flights out of Afghanistan last August. His wife, Paimana, who was pregnant at the time, and their two daughters Sana and Yalda, went through a very harrowing experience making to and through the airport gate to find Mohammad on that last day. Upon safely reaching the United States, their third daughter, Sorah, was born at a US military base that was serving as a refugee camp in Viginia. The Azimis were first relocated to Minnesota and later moved to Denver in February 2022.
How was that like, for you and for the Azani family?
When we got paired, we couldn’t communicate. The Azimi family didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Dahri. We were able to set the kids up with a private dentist willing to help at no charge, and we helped them navigate the Denver Health system and set them up with schools. We also set the mother up with English classes; we can now communicate, and it’s amazing to see her speak in much improving English after just six months.
What was their experience navigating the American school system?
[My wife,] Karen, spotted a Montessori school in their neighborhood, and I realized, “I think they won The Succeeds Prize last year.” Right away Karen wanted to get the girls in that school, because education is a huge focus for us. With the help of Colorado Succeeds, we met the director of the school, found out that girls qualified, and helped them to enroll. Since starting school, the girls have had a phenomenal experience. Mile High Montessori is an amazing place, they’re getting the education, interaction, and engagement they need.
I’ve been on Colorado Succeeds’ board since 2014, so we at TTEC were one of the initial sponsors when The Succeeds Prize launched and have been a sponsor every year. TTEC sponsored the elementary school prize, so I clearly remember when Mile High Montessori won the Early Childhood Education prize; to see the Azimi kids go to that school now just brings the story full circle.