JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Thursday was Madiha Zahir's birthday, but she didn't feel much like celebrating.
The 25-year-old Afghan American had her mind on her home, Afghanistan.
"It has been a very trying time," she said.
Zahir and her family moved to Jacksonville from Afghanistan when she was three years old, a little more than two decades ago. She went back to visit when she was 12.
“It just held this richness in the soil. You can feel it. You can feel your ancestors and just, I was moved, you know, at 12, so you can just only imagine how the rest of us feel that had to leave," she said.
"You may leave Afghanistan, but Afghanistan never leaves you," Zahir said.
She said hearing the news of Thursday's attacks, and seeing startling images coming out of Afghanistan, has been extremely difficult, to say the least.
"No one should have had to die. This was avoidable. I don't want to speak on policy, but I think that we [the United States] as one of the superpowers in the world, we could have been at the forefront of this, and, you know, our soldiers didn't have to die. Civilians didn't have to die," Zahir said.
She still has family and friends in Afghanistan. Zahir said it's not feasible for some to leave, and not everyone wants to leave the place they call home.
"Daily, you know, we get updates from them. And the priority right now is safety, and confirming that everyone's okay and just trying to get a sense of what's going on on the ground over there because we don't really know," Zahir said.
She said she's focused on helping the situation in any way she can
“A long time ago, I realized reacting to news from back home, it’s just a lot of emotion. It doesn’t help, so I’ve learned how to compartmentalize everything and think more clearly and think more solution-oriented, so as many emotions as I feel, I’m trying to think, 'what do we do next? How do I fix it," Zahir said.
She is teaming up with local groups, like Lutheran Services and the Nabi Akram Center, to collect donations for Afghan refugees coming to Jacksonville at the beginning of September.
“The basic necessities every human needs, they haven't had access to that. So, we want to give them a big American welcome and give them everything they need," Zahir said.
You can drop off donations, like clothes, shoes, hygiene products and toiletries and items listed in the post below to the Nabi Akram Center located at 1840 Anniston Road, Jacksonville, Florida 32246. Drop off times include Saturday 1-3 p.m. and 5- 7 p.m. You can call or text 904-466-1738 with any questions.
She also wants people to know Afghanistan is more than what you see on TV right now.
"The richness of our culture and the history, it goes back centuries, and you just have to read about it. And it's so amazing, the empires that, you know, have been unable to conquer this land and how, you know, sought after it has been, it's incredible," Zahir said.
"And just the people. If you talk to soldiers, they'll even tell you the hospitality and just, the food and the colorfulness of our clothes, and the beauty of the country," she said.
Zahir plans to have more donation drives for the refugees in the weeks and months to come.
"There's a lot of talk about an August 31 deadline, and it would be naïve to believe that this will wrap up and have a neat little bow on top. It's gonna be a long-term issue," she said.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint, and that's what I keep telling everyone in the community that, you know, let's make sure that we conserve our energy and our resources because I know in the first few weeks, everyone's very eager to help. So, my hope is that we can continue to keep the attention, the global attention, on this, on Afghanistan," Zahir said.