Befriending Newly Arrived Afghans Across the US

In their most recent newsletter, Mission to North America Refugee & Immigrant Ministry highlights Grace Covenant’s Mary & Allen Slade and Nathan Kieweit for their labors to lead our church in outreach to Afghan Refugees here on the Peninsula. We have reproduced the post here:
Have you resolved to do something new in 2022? Something that will allow the Lord to deepen your spiritual life in fresh ways?

Upon her recent retirement, Mary Slade of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, VA, prayerfully set a new goal for this season of her life:  to form a friendship with someone who might not ever walk through the doors of her church! The Lord answered, providing her a chance to befriend a newly arrived Afghan family in her area.  She started by offering to drive the young Afghan mother and her pre-school daughter to shop at Walmart, and then to a local park with playground equipment. 
“When we got to the park, I realized it was their very first time,” says Mary. “The little girl was frightened! After an hour, though, her countenance totally changed. You could see the stress melt away! Her mom enjoyed it, too–getting away from the confines of the apartment and her many worries, to a peaceful place with trees. And she was relieved to see her child happy.” 

When the little girl’s older brother found out that they had gone to the park on a school day without him, he asked Mary if they could go again, so he could get in on the fun! 

“Now their mom calls me ‘Mom,’” says Mary affectionately. “Knowing that they don’t have their own mom or grandma with them, it’s such a special thing to be able to just be there for them in that capacity as they begin to navigate life in the US!” 
Acts 17:26 and 27 tells us that God has always used the movement of people for His purposes – and that whatever causes people to leave their homelands (in this case, fleeing to a safer place), His sovereign purpose is “that they might perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him.” But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum – He has brought them to OUR communities – into proximity with believers so that we might be “the aroma of Christ” in how we welcome and befriend them.“Knowing that they don’t have their own mom or grandma with them, it’s such a special thing to be able to just be there for them in that capacity as they begin to navigate life in the US!”
Have you heard that Afghan arrivals will be resettled in your area? If you haven’t yet, it’s very possible that you will soon. While the evacuation flights initially took approximately 70,000 Afghans to US military bases around the country for processing and vaccinations, only 16,000 now remain on the bases, and those are expected to leave for local communities before Feb. 15th.

While most previous refugees have spent years in camps waiting for a chance to resettle in a safe country, these Afghans have not had that experience. Many had been working in respected roles with US troops or US-funded aid programs, and had been relatively comfortable financially, until their country fell to the Taliban and they found themselves in imminent danger. Suddenly they had to leave everything behind, and those fortunate enough to make it onto evacuation flights were brought directly to the US. 

Not having to endure the protracted trauma of refugee camp living is positive, and the Afghans are very grateful to be in a safe place. However, the whiplash of rushing to evacuate – with no chance to prepare, very few possessions, anxious about family members who didn’t make it out – and now suddenly finding themselves in a new culture where their previous roles and/or professional credentials are not transferable – is a huge challenge. Having put their lives -and the lives of their family members – at risk to help Americans, their hopes of how they would be welcomed here may be high. “For these families, it’s hard to adjust to the reality that they need to accept an entry level job and start at the bottom,” says Mary Slade. 

Suddenly finding themselves in a new culture where their previous roles and/or professional credentials are not transferableis a huge challenge.After arriving in a new country, refugees have to rebuild their lives from scratch, usually with significant assistance from the local resettlement agency that picks them up at the airport and walks with them through the first few months. But – due to critical staff shortages caused by the erosion of federal support for the refugee program during the previous 4 years – and due to the sudden, unanticipated evacuation of 70,000 Afghans to the US in 6 weeks’ time, rather than the usual “controlled flow” of refugees into the US – many of the local resettlement agencies assigned to help the Afghan arrivals are overwhelmed, currently only able to provide limited support in this process, once the refugees are sent to local communities from the US military bases to which they were initially evacuated.
And yet, partnership with resettlement agencies is vital. “For the US government, there has been no ‘Plan B’ for helping refugees to settle in the US,” explains Pat Hatch, MNA’s Refugee and Immigrant Ministry Director. “Federal government and state agencies depend on the local resettlement agencies as the sole conduit of information and processes crucial to establishing the refugees’ identity in US databases and providing access to transitional benefits and services for which they are eligible.”

As you reach out to your local resettlement agency, be gently persistent in offering to supplement these important services,  using their online contact form or organizational email address. If you are specific about what you can offer (transportation to and from appointments? a storage unit for donated items? a housing unit for a year? furnishings in good condition? ESL tutoring?) and let them know multiple ways to reach you, you’ll be more likely to get a response.” (Find your closest resettlement agency at 

Mary Slade definitely sees her efforts as supporting the resettlement agency in their time of need: “The agencies are overwhelmed. They’ve never had this many refugees come through this fast, at a time when their staffing levels were so low. We are just filling in the gaps.” 
[Photo: Volunteers organizing donations at a storage unit in Tucson]

Another Grace Covenant Presbyterian member, Nathan Kiewiet, reports that “when we first met our Afghan family of eleven, they only had the clothes on their backs.” Simply taking new arrivals to Walmart to pick out some additional clothes can be a huge blessing. The church has donated money as well as household items, responding to specific needs expressed by Afghan families themselves, since “we want to get things they need, not presume what we think they need or overhelp.” For example, while some families may appreciate tables and chairs or sofas, many may – at least at first – prefer donations of clean carpets on which they can spread out a cloth for meals and for socializing, as has been their tradition. 

Finding housing in local communities for refugees is always challenging for the resettlement agencies, since it needs to be on public transportation routes, near jobs, and at a rate affordable on an entry-level wage.  (And since the refugees don’t yet have either a job or a credit rating!)

But with the Afghan arrivals, this has been compounded because there is a nationwide shortage of affordable housing, and also because many of the Afghan families who are arriving are quite large – often with five or more children, requiring larger units. 
“We want to get things they need, not presume what we think they need.”As a result of the shortage, once they are sent from the military bases to the local communities, many resettlement agencies are finding it necessary to house the Afghan families temporarily in extended stay motels until more permanent housing solutions can be found.
(If you as a parent or grandparent have ever had a vacation rained or snowed out and have been trapped in a hotel room for 24 hours with small children, you can begin to imagine how difficult it is for families who have been through so much trauma already to live this way for weeks or months, in a confined space, with many children.)

Many of the adults have not yet received their employment authorization documents that are still in process, and most of the children have not yet been enrolled in school, so they are just “sitting there in limbo, with nothing to do.”  If the local resettlement agency will permit, this is a tremendous, time-sensitive opportunity for church volunteers to step into the gap and provide meaningful activities and begin friendships (a few volunteers at a time, is best at first.) 
Essie Wu of Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson, AZ shares that her church has teamed up with a local Afghan-run organization, Tucson Afghan Community, as well as with Tucson Refugee Ministry to go to the hotel where Afghans are are living temporarily and help provide donations and diversions to those with little to do.  Activities have included crocheting (a popular pastime for Afghan women), soccer games, music, Q&A with an immigration lawyer and children’s activities.“You can’t imagine how rewarding it is to meet a family right at the beginning! They’re so grateful, and you become part of their story, burned into their memory – someone they’ll never forget!”
Though living in motels makes it impractical for these families to receive most household items yet, they have been very grateful for donated electric tea kettles (which don’t require a stove) and teacups, “which are culturally so important to Afghans, to allow them – even in their hotel rooms – to cope with their day in a familiar way, and to be hospitable if they have visitors.”
This is a tremendous, time-sensitive opportunity for church volunteers to step into the gap and provide meaningful activities and begin friendships. Christi Triplett shares that Westminster Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill, SC, is seeking to “stand in the gap” regarding lack of housing for Afghan new arrivals by offering the two small furnished houses owned by the church to be rented by Afghan families for up to two years. They expect to receive two families soon through Samaritan’s Purse, which is working with one of the resettlement agencies, Church World Service. Other churches might consider if there are housing units owned by the church (perhaps a former manse or parsonage?) that might be used for refugee ministry in a similar way in this emergency!
It is a truly special thing to meet a family in their very early days in this country and then to continue the relationship as the years go by, says Essie Wu. “You can’t imagine how rewarding it is to meet a family right at the beginning! They’re so grateful, and you become part of their story, burned into their memorysomeone they’ll never forget!” Essie can attest to that: She is still dear friends with some Somali Bantu refugees that she helped resettle twenty years ago!
Our next newsletter will continue to look at initial resettlement needs and provide ideas for building long-term friendships with Afghan families.

Linda B. and her husband Bruce, who have been working with a few others from Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, to help a young Afghan couple get settled in the Washington DC area advise: “Use Google Sheets – user-friendly spreadsheets that can be edited by anyone with the link!” Keeping a shared spreadsheet allows church refugee team members to be on the same page and avoid duplicating each other’s efforts.

New needs can be reported to the group on this shared document, and progress can be tracked, as team members add a brief description of who did what on what date, subjects discussed, what items have been donated, etc.

Wondering what household items Afghans most frequently request? Here is a starter list:

tea kettles and tea cups,
serving platters, serving dishes, 
old-fashioned pressure cookers, 
large cooking pots, 
cookie sheets, or roasting pans for oven roasting 
irons and ironing boards
large, clean area rugs 
A very helpful 17-minute video by missionary to Afghanistan, JW, on Afghan cultural considerations

January 31st : Culture and Considerations: How to Best Welcome Afghan Newcomers (a 45-minute webinar by Church World Service): Staff of the Afghan Association of Michigan tell how we can best welcome our Afghan allies and new neighbors. 

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