While you’re giving thanks this week, take a moment to express your gratitude to the generous folks who are helping to receive and resettle Afghan refugees. They represent the very best of the American spirit: good-hearted and open-minded, a spirit that might flicker and fade in Washington, D.C., but that flourishes in communities across the country.
The indelible images of desperate Afghans fleeing their homeland flooded TV and computer screens for several weeks this summer. Then the images disappeared, but the real people behind those pictures remain — about 73,000 of them, now in the process of integrating into American life. They face some serious problems — mainly a severe shortage of affordable housing — but the kindness and commitment of their new neighbors has been overwhelming.
“Throughout the United States, Americans across the political spectrum are stepping forward to welcome Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort in one of the largest mass mobilizations of volunteers since the end of the Vietnam War,” reports The New York Times.
“In rural Minnesota, an agricultural specialist has been working on visa applications and providing temporary housing for the newcomers, and she has set up an area for halal meat processing on her farm,” the Times continues. “In California, a group of veterans has sent a welcoming committee to the Sacramento airport to greet every arriving family. In Arkansas, volunteers are signing up to buy groceries, do airport pickups and host families in their homes.”
“We have never seen anything like it,” added Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Xenophobia is still deeply rooted in the American character, and bigoted buffoons like John Bennett, the Republican party chairman in Oklahoma, want to ban Afghans from entering their states. But in a national ABC/Washington Post poll, 68% supported accepting refugees, and only 27% opposed the policy.
“Even the most right-leaning isolationists within our sphere recognize the level of responsibility that America has to people who sacrificed for the nation’s interest,” Caleb Campbell, an evangelical pastor in Phoenix told the Times. “This is a galvanizing moment.”
Here are just a few of the folks who are making that so:
Caroline Clarin, who lives in a conservative rural county in northern Minnesota, has helped to relocate five Afghan families, sometimes paying for their passage and temporarily housing them, reports the Times. “I was concerned. I am in an absolutely fire-red area,” she said. But the community “has been extremely welcoming to them.”
Homes Not Borders, a nonprofit in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., has set up nearly 40 homes for about 170 refugees since August. A Post reporter observed volunteers cleaning and furnishing two apartments for one family of eight. “They assembled bunk beds, hung up wall art and cleaned some of the kitchen appliances in the apartments over a four-hour period,” said the Post.
One worker in that effort, Manizha Azizi, had been a refugee from Afghanistan herself in 1985. She started volunteering after she saw the news reports of Afghans fleeing Kabul. “I’ve just kept coming back,” she said.
Perhaps 50,000 refugees are still housed in military bases; Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh, Indiana, is hosting several thousand. Vox interviewed one volunteer, Lori Joundi, who said that many members of the local Muslim community were participating in the effort: “There’s been a lot of support, it’s just that because of the number of people and the enormity of all of their needs — I don’t want to call it a scarcity problem. But you’re basically taking care of an entire city, right? 6,000 is a small town.”
Khadija Wazeen, a physician before leaving Afghanistan, is still living at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. When her eyeglasses broke, she went to the nearby town to buy replacements. As Vox reports: “But the cheapest frames were $25. They didn’t have the money. Another customer overheard and offered to buy them. When the women went to pay, Wazeen cried.”
DePaul University in Chicago will take in 10 students from the Asian University for Women and cover all their costs. “We’re blessed to be able to support them,” GianMario Besana, the school’s associate provost, told the campus newspaper. “They’re coming to us after severe trauma. Once they get here, we want them to have some degree of normalcy.”
As you count your own blessings this holiday season, remember the refugees — and your fellow Americans who are making them feel so welcome in their new hometowns.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.