Volunteers in Baltimore rally to help refugees
In January, an Afghan family of five arrived in the Baltimore area. They had been evacuated to the United States in August and had spent months on a U.S. military base in Wisconsin.
Julie Simon and seven others from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation sprang into action. They helped the family move into an apartment in Baltimore County, register their children for public school, sign up for English lessons and social services, and visit doctors and dentists.
“We’re [also] helping them with job searches. In fact, the 20-year-old son is working now at Towson University, which we’re very excited about. He and I practiced on the bus this morning, so he can get there now on his own,” Simon said.
“We’ve just been doing everything we can to help this family get settled as new Baltimoreans.”
Since last August, more than 76,000 Afghan nationals have been resettled in communities across the country. These refugees have a temporary status that allows them to legally live in the United States.
“It’s been incredible to work with the families and individuals in the last few months as they’ve arrived in Maryland and Virginia. This region is one of the top destinations for Afghans,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).
Her group is one of nine national resettlement agencies that are helping welcome the United States’ Afghan allies and their families through the U.S. State Department’s Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) program.
Coming to America
The Afghan families first landed at eight military bases, where they were temporarily housed while being matched with local refugee resettlement agencies and community partners.
Once families reached their final destinations, organizations like LIRS helped arrange pick-ups at the airport, find affordable housing and modest furniture, and even stock their refrigerators with culturally familiar food.
Case workers also “ensure they have access to community-based resources, help them enroll children in public schools, and get them onto an economic footing by working with them on securing employment,” Vignarajah said.
As public-private partnerships, the APA program and the national resettlement nonprofits greatly depend on local communities for resources to support refugee families as they begin rebuilding their lives in the United States.
Complementing the work of the national agencies are so-called Sponsor Circles — small groups of individuals willing to sponsor and assist an Afghan family in their neighborhood.
Groups of five to eight individuals go through a training and vetting process and are matched with a family. The group takes on a wide range of responsibilities for the family’s resettlement and integration in the community.
What Circles can do
Recently HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit and one of the national resettlement agencies, asked congregations if members were interested in setting up what it calls Welcome Circles.
Members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation were very interested and quickly assembled a group of eight people to help a family of refugees.
“We have medical people, lawyers, retired school personnel. We have somebody who owns some apartment buildings in the area. [We’re] a very eclectic group,” Simon said.
Many world religions emphasize the importance of welcoming people in need. HIAS has been offering humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees since it was founded in 1881.
“Mark Hetfield, who is the head of HIAS, said that we used to help people because they were Jews, and now we do it because we are Jews,” Simon said with a smile.
“As a religion, as a people, we’re really called to welcome the stranger. We know what it’s like to be on the move, not be comfortable where we live, or even to have to leave where we live on short notice. [Volunteering] is just a really important way for me to live my Jewish identity,” Simon said.
Furnishing apartments overnight
When Kathy Gross, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Columbia, visited an Afghan family of seven that her church had been asked to help, she found them in a two-bedroom apartment in Elkridge with almost nothing in it except for a mattress and a crib.
So Gross created a wish list of household items and sent it to friends and neighbors. “It went out the next day around noon electronically,” she said, “and by 10 o’clock that night, 90 percent of what was on that list had been donated.”
Gross is on the parish’s social justice committee, which helped the family set up their new home. Church volunteers have since helped enroll the family’s children in elementary school, assisted the parents with resume writing and job searches, and provided driving lessons for the father so he could obtain his driver’s license.
After the U.S. resettles this wave of Afghan allies, they may need help with other evacuees, Gross said, and she’s ready to help.
“I am hoping that more faith communities will commit to helping Afghan refugees and, perhaps later, Ukrainian refugees too,” Gross said.
Volunteers need support, too
Volunteering can be a full-time job, and burnout is always a risk.
“One of our concerns was that the LIRS staff themselves were all working crazy hours, not eating, not sleeping,” said Diane Batchik, a member of the New Hope Lutheran Church congregation in Columbia who also serves on the national board of LIRS.
“We quickly realized we wanted to do something to care for the staff because we need them to be able to keep working.”
As a first step, the congregation arranged online yoga classes for LIRS team members around the nation, and bought gift cards from national restaurant chains to make it as easy as possible for the staff to order food or have it delivered.
“They were all working absolutely insane hours,” Batchik said. “Some of these are very deeply stressful positions. We just thought they should hear that people recognize that.”
Batchik also instigated the move to redirect $50,000 in funds from New Hope Lutheran to be put to urgent needs for resettlement of Afghan evacuees in Maryland.
The funds were initially intended for church building expansion, but the pandemic changed everything when worship moved online.
“I love seeing these funds put to use for the really practical purpose of helping start Afghan evacuees on their new life,” Batchik said.
Today’s volunteers have learned to be practical and act quickly to help. Julie Simon’s Welcome Circle members spring into action to help their refugee family whenever needed.
“We are people who know how to get things done,” Simon said with a chuckle. “That’s just the nature of who we are; you get a bunch of Jewish mothers together — and we’re not all women, but you know what I mean. We’re gonna get stuff done.”