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Reston charity gives lift to local refugees by donating cars

Rides for Refugees President Jacqui Olkin (courtesy Rides for Refugees)

A Reston-based nonprofit organization is helping local refugees establish a new life in the U.S. by providing cars to them for free.

Last week, Rides for Refugees donated two cars to refugees living in Northern Virginia. Both of them are Afghan refugees who received special immigration visas.

One individual, Mohamed, received a visa after supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan through military service and humanitarian work. With a law degree in hand, Mohamed is actively looking for a new job after he and his family lost their home when they fled Afghanistan, where the Taliban re-assumed control in 2021.

“Rides for Refugees has given me hope,” he said. “Not only for myself, but for all my family. Having this car, I can get more professional jobs.”

The second recipient, Zed, is a college graduate who worked with U.S. military and defense contracting staff in Kabul. He arrived in the U.S. last summer after facing “enormous difficulty during a long journey” and is now working and taking classes, though the car will enable him to look for jobs farther from his new home, according to Rides for Refugees.

“This is a big moment for me,” Zed said.

The organization is the brainchild of Jacqui Olkin, a lifelong Restonian and graduate of Fairfax County Public Schools. She also owns a web design consulting firm, Olkin Communications Consulting.

Olkin founded Rides for Refugees, which serves individuals across the country, in 2022. The nonprofit began providing cars to refugees this month after receiving tax-exempt status from the government.

She was inspired to found the organization after her friends, Slava and Nina, faced major transportation hurdles as refugees from Ukraine.

“They went through a horrible ordeal and lost their home, cars, jobs, and belongings,” Olkin told FFXnow. “The bank accounts were frozen because their city is a conflict zone. They were resettled in a small village in a European country, far from jobs and services, and their life has been extremely difficult.”

According to Olkin, Slava says she and Nina miss their cars the most out of all the material possessions they lost.

“Vehicles mean opportunity — to work for yourself, to look for jobs, to get to work and be financially independent,” Olkin said. “My friends’ ordeal got me thinking about what the refugee experience is like in the United States, and the role transportation plays in refugees’ ability to restart their lives and become self-reliant.”

In her research, Olkin said she found that 45% of Americans don’t have access to public transit, and few organization meet the transportation needs specifically of refugees.

“Rides for Refugees is national is scope,” she said. “In our application process, refugees must prove their identity, income level, and legal status and have a resettlement agency or other not-for-profit cosign the application. Refugee applicants are referred to us by many of the U.S. government-funded national resettlement agencies, as well as local nonprofits who help refugees.”

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