The Good Neighbors Capitol Hill Refugee Ministry, Good Neighbors for short, is celebrating more than a year of work with Afghan refugee families. On Feb. 25th, the group held a dinner celebrating the work, the families and the friendships built across denominations and borders through the refugee ministry.
The event was attended by refugee families, 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.
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.
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.
Brendan Danaher, who is one of three Co-Chairs, with Karen Getman of St. Mark’s Episcopal and Kathy Tobias of LCOR, says the idea of working together across denominational lines drives the mission. “It’s not enough to just form bridges between Americans and Afghans,” he said. “It’s also a core principal of what we’re doing to form bridges between Christians, and Jews and Muslims, Mormons and Methodists –all working together.”
In fall of 2016 Good Neighbors reached out to Lutheran Social Services (LSS) of the National Capitol Area to work with “special immigrants.” 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.
“We as Americans have a debt to Afghanistan and the people who have risked danger to themselves and their families to support our armed forces internationally, and in Afghanistan particularly,” said Getman.
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 13 apartments.
The work grew, and today the Good Neighbors provide broader support to five main families. Some were introduced to them by the PTA of the Gladys Noon Spellman School in Cheverly, located in an area in which many Afghan families have come to live.
Good Neighbors volunteers help with transportation to language classes, medical appointments, resumé writing and job searches as well as providing necessities for the children to attend school.
Getman said that initially, the Hill group tried to get LSS to settle some of the families on Capitol Hill, but the District did not allow this for what it termed ‘unconnected families,’ or families without relatives already living here. Most of the families were therefore placed in Prince George County, often in low income residential blocks.
Prior to leaving for the States, each of the arriving families wait through a two-year vetting process. Most arrive from Afghanistan, “with a few bags of clothes and nothing else,” said Danaher.
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.
“These families arrive after having fled their homeland because they were at personal risk or members of their families were already killed,” Danaher said.
The Rasooly Family
Three days before Christmas 2016, Good Neighbors learned that their help was needed with the imminent arrival of an Afghan family of four. The father had been an interpreter for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, and feared reprisals for his wife and his young daughter and son, aged five and two. They would arrive within weeks.
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 in Jan 2017.
The family’s flight was due at 3:30 p.m. They emerged from Border Control after 8 p.m.
“They looked, as you might imagine, both relieved and so exhausted,” said Getman, adding that the father really needed a cigarette.
“And yet, this five-and-a-half-year-old girl was just beaming with the most angelic smile on her face.”
Mr. Rasooly, now employed with a medical transcription company as a translator, is efficient with words. “There’s too much stuff,” he said, when asked by telephone to talk about all the ways the volunteers had assisted his family over the last year or so. “Since we arrived, they have helped us a lot. They helped us with the American system, with paperwork, how to get services,” he said. “They provided transportation!”
Mr. Rasooly said that he considered those he had met as volunteers to be friends, and was grateful for their work. “We do appreciate that, and we like them,” he said. “They are always thinking about –not just me—there are lots of families. They’re just trying to help all of them.”
“I would like to keep these relationships with them,” he said.
Those who know the Rasoolys share Mr. Rasooly’s desire to continue the relationship. Volunteer Rachel Usdan says that the Rasoolys are friends who regularly attend her children’s birthday parties and playdates. She says they are wonderful people, very warm and inviting.
“They’ve experienced so much change in one short year,” she said, “and they just seem to roll with it. I’ve never seen them upset or stressed out or intimidated or anything, and that just speaks to their strength of character.”
Time is a Talent
While the Good Neighbors team volunteers their time, they invariably depend on the generosity of the community for donations. To help the families, the Good Neighbors need donations of household items, including everything that can be found in a two-bedroom family apartment, from couches and tables to coffee makers and toys. And, of course, they need money to purchase things that cannot legally be provided used, such as mattresses, but also to help the arriving families with costs such as health care, rent and the debt resulting from their airfare.
The core of the Good Neighbors’ effort, however, are the volunteers –those who set up the apartments, fill the cupboards and collect and move furniture, or help families fill out paperwork, find transportation to appointments and assist with the all-important job search. Those who want to do fundraising or who are familiar with social services bureaucracy and health care in Prince George County would also be an asset.
Pam Commerford, leader of the employment team, said all volunteers are welcome and greatly appreciated. “Time is a talent,” she said.
Usdan says the experience has been rewarding in ways she didn’t expect. Not only has she watched the Rasooly family successfully adapt to their surroundings, she and her family have gained friends.
“I definitely feel a connection to them,” she said.
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.