The Good Neighbors Capitol Hill Refugee Resettlement Project, Good Neighbors for short, is celebrating more than a year of work with Afghan families. On the evening of Feb. 25th at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 East Capitol St. NE), the group held a dinner celebrating the work, the families and the friendships built across denominations and borders through the refugee ministry.
“We share this meal as a manifestation of the community which has formed to welcome refugees to our city,” said Brendan Danaher, one of three Good Neighbors Co-Chairs, as he opened the evening.
“The call to welcome is found in the Torah, the Koran, and the Gospels. It is both religious and civic. One that we know from the Statue of Liberty, Mother of Exiles, who welcomes her huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“We are Afghans and Americans, Jews and Lutherans and Latter-day Saints, Muslims and Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians,” he said.
The project took root in late 2016, when the members of three congregations, Lutheran Church of the Reformation (LCOR), St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Capitol Hill Presbyterian, heard a call to help refugees. In short order, the participating congregations grew by five more, including Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Hill Havurah, Capitol Hill Ward of the Latter-Day Saints, Christ Church Episcopal, and St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
The dinner, an Afghan-style meal provided by caterer Blue Zucchini, was attended by about 75 family members, volunteers, clergy and dignitaries. The latter included Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) and Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who presented representatives from participating congregations with copies of a resolution currently before District Council that would honor the work of the ministry.
Both Silverman and Allen praised the group’s efforts, thanking them for their work and representation of the District and the neighborhood. “I think the Capitol Hill community embraces some of the best values of American life,” Silverman said in her remarks, noting that she is also a member of the Hill Havurah congregation.
In the fall of 2016 Good Neighbors reached out to Lutheran Social Services (LSS) of the National Capitol Area to work with families entering the country on Special Immigrant Visas. These are Afghan refugees who worked with US Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Now, with the withdrawal of American forces from the region, many fear retribution against themselves or their families and seek refuge in America.
The group started out setting up apartments for arriving families of four to ten people. Sometimes with as little as one week’s notice, apartments are furnished from top to bottom, including beds and dining table but also dishes, paper towels, toys, groceries, toiletries and a meal, prepared and waiting for the family on the day of arrival. To date, the refugee project has furnished about 14 apartments.
They went on to provide support with transportation to language classes, medical appointments, resumé writing and job searches as well as providing necessities for the children to attend school.
In addition, the group works to raise financial support for rent, health insurance and the debt that the families arrive with. While air tickets are initially paid for in an arrangement with the U.S. State Department, families are expected to repay the costs of the flight from Kabul within months. A debt for a family of four can be about $5,000 and repayment is expected to begin within months of arrival.
‘Someplace to Sleep’
Three days before Christmas 2016, Good Neighbors learned that their help was needed with the imminent arrival of an Afghan family of four. The Rasooly family arrived January 17, 2007.
Good Neighbors volunteers quickly began to put together a two-bedroom apartment. They were still frantically making arrangements as three other volunteers went to meet the Rasooly family at the airport.
At the dinner, Mr. Rasooly said that he was both excited and exhausted by the time he met the group of volunteers at the airport, five hours after landing. He said that he came to the U.S. for reasons of safety, but also for education and opportunity for his children.
“The house was ready, furniture, everything. Even we had some Afghani food,” he said of his family’s arrival after 45 hours of travel at the apartment prepared by the Good Neighbors. “And I was so tired,” he said. “Me and my family just needed to find someplace to sleep.”
Rasooly said that the volunteers provided him with assistance in all aspects of life in the United States. “[A] driver’s license is the most important thing for a person to have here,” he said. “Here they don’t ask for any citizenship or a green card, they just ask, ‘Where’s your driver’s license?’”
With the help of Good Neighbors volunteers, Rasooly obtained his driver’s license. And on one significant day, Rasooly spent the morning at a job interview with one of the biggest medical transcription company in the area and the afternoon purchasing a car with the help of volunteer Kevin Anderson. Both events were a success. Rasooly was hired, and still works with the company.
“I was so excited, I was so happy,” he said. “I didn’t sleep that night.”
‘Great People for this Nation’
Ishaq Shiwani is a recent mentor with the program. He came to the Washington area from Afghanistan in 2016. He said that if he could encourage the group in what to do for immigrants, they were already doing what he would suggest that they do.
Pointing out that people do not abandon the life they know for another country unless the situation they are leaving is very tough, Shiwani noted that immigrants are not a burden to any nation, but contributors to making a nation great. The Good Neighbors, he said, were assisting them in this process.
“You are literally building great people for this nation again,” he told them.
In his comments, Kevin Anderson, a volunteer who helped Rasooly get his license and car, agreed.
“We are all immigrants,” he said of Americans. “We do very well to remember that.”
“I’m richer for this experience with all these folks,” he said gesturing at the room, “and we are the richer because the Rasoolys are here with us.”
For more information, to volunteer your time or arrange in-kind donations with the refugee ministry, contact Brendan Danaher at [email protected].
Financial donations can be sent by mail to Lutheran Church of the Reformation: 212 East Capitol St. NE Washington DC 20003, or made online by checking the ‘Refugee Resettlement’ box to designate your donation at www.reformationdc.org/give. All donations are tax deductible.