SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Between the rush to settle and feed 39 Afghan refugees who’ve arrived in South Bend since December — and laughs over language barriers — local volunteers have yet to see signs of trauma.
Which they can only assume exist.
There was a hint of it when an Afghan father sat with volunteer translator Sarah Sheikh and began to reflect on his new life in South Bend, having been at a U.S. military base since September after the violent collapse of Afghanistan’s government.
He’d been watching his daughter learn to walk and said of the girl, just more than a year old, “Every time she falls and gets up.”
“Now,” the man continued in Urdu, “I think every time I fall, I have to get up.”
Sheikh admitted that she’d probably get emotional if families did relate detailed stories.
“I don’t ask too many questions,” she said. “They just told me they ran (when they left their homes in Afghanistan). They pick what they can.”
Leaving many possessions, the refugees arrived in South Bend with just some small bags of goods.
Sheikh is among 100 or so volunteers from several houses of faith and a few ad-hoc groups that the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County has lined up to welcome and settle the Afghans in the county.
The groups procure welcome packages, transportation, food, clothes, furniture, towels and other household items.
The mosque at the Islamic Society of Michiana, where Sheikh attends, has been involved with all of the arrivals, URC Executive Director John Pinter said, from providing culturally appropriate food to providing translators.
The URC anticipates three more Afghans will arrive, reaching the 35 total people that the organization agreed to sponsor.
Another round of about 30 people, or four families, is expected to arrive in the coming month, sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Each family will be sponsored by a Catholic parish. Two of those families arrived in the past week, one with seven people, the other with nine.
Catholic Charities Interim CEO Dan Florin hopes to bring two of the English-speaking Afghans from Fort Wayne to South Bend for a day or two, to help situate the upcoming arrivals and make them feel comfortable.
In Fort Wayne, Catholic Charities has already received about 90 Afghans.
“They’re doing very well,” Florin said. “They are extremely happy to be in America. We find them to be very friendly and thankful to be here and respectful of our laws.”
In November, the URC and Catholic Charities — both of whom already had refugee resettlement programs — formed a Refugee Steering Committee with the city of South Bend, La Casa de Amistad and other partners to coordinate help for the Afghans.
Aleemi closed the door on his home in a city in Afghanistan in August, carrying just one bag for himself, his wife and their three young kids, and abandoning things like the white dress that his 4-year-old daughter still asks if she’ll see again.
As for his car, he said, “I left it on the road.”
Two sets of clothing for each person. That was it.
The country’s U.S.-backed government was rapidly collapsing to the Taliban, triggering a chaotic evacuation as thousands tried to flee a future under harsh and restrictive rule.
Aleemi and his family joined hordes of people for three days to see if they could board a flight out of the country. They landed at a Texas Army base and lived there for almost four months, lodged in a noisy tent for 100 people, with partitions for rooms but, gratefully, with soldiers who “treated us humbly, treated us with good manners and a positive attitude.”
Aleemi is his last name, a very common one in Afghanistan. He asked The Tribune not to fully identify him for fear of reprisal from his native country.
He said he’d “worried too much” about moving to South Bend “because you don’t know anybody.”
That melted in December, when the family arrived at the airport near midnight and saw almost a dozen local volunteers to welcome them.
“Everything is different here — culture, language, everything,” he said inside the South Bend mosque where he attends prayers. “But, honestly, I’m glad I’m here because I am (free of worry) about the safety for myself and my family.”
Back home, he recalled, “When I leave home, I was not 100% sure because there were blasts.”
He’d seen explosions at close range. But he isn’t thinking about that now. He’s glad to live in a quiet apartment, next door to his mom, sister and niece.
“I’m very positive for my kids’ future,” he said, noting that the children now have lots of donated toys. “They will go for higher education. You can be a doctor. My son can be a soldier here and serve the country.”
They are among more than 52,000 Afghans who have been resettled across the U.S., many of whom had helped the U.S. military through its 20 years in the war in Afghanistan.
They’ve been through security vetting and COVID-19 testing and vaccination at the military bases where they landed, Florin said.
The URC-sponsored Afghans came primarily from Fort Bliss in Texas. In Fort Wayne, Catholic Charities received folks from Camp Atterbury, just south of Indianapolis, as well as a couple of other bases.
Atterbury had housed more than 7,200 people at its peak. The Indianapolis Star recently reported that the base hoped to settle the last of its refugees by the end of January.
“You see how excited people are to finally leave,” Public Affairs Officer Maj. Jennifer Pendleton told the Star. “They get to start anew and it’s great. … It’s really promising and fills you with a lot of positive vibes.”
Their fate of landing in South Bend is mostly luck of the draw, as the U.S. State Department works with national charities to channel the refugees — through Church World Services for the URC’s people, and through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for Catholic Charities’ arrivals.
They are refugees in the broad sense of the term, but technically, most are coming through a program that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services classifies as “humanitarian parole.”
It isn’t the same as the word’s common definition in the criminal system. Nor is it the traditional refugee status, where someone seeks refuge in the U.S. from a dangerous situation back home.
Parole has been used, for example, when a child needs to come to the U.S. temporarily for surgery. The status allows the Afghans to legally live, work and receive assistance here.
Like many Afghans, Aleemi hopes to live here “for all my life.” But parole doesn’t provide an avenue for the Afghans to gain a “green card” or legal permanent residency. Agencies like Church World Service have urged Congress to adopt a solution.
Only two of the Afghans in South Bend, including Aleemi, speak English and just a handful of them do in Fort Wayne.
Sheikh works with three families but doesn’t speak their languages of Pashto, Dari, Farsi and Turkmen. She can translate through her native language, Urdu. She and her husband, a cardiologist, are both Pakistanis who moved to the South Bend area about 40 years ago.
Sheikh drives them to doctor appointments and talks to them on the phone about their needs and next steps. She’s working with men who want to go to college, kids who are eager for school and women who got the sewing machines they’d requested to make their own clothes (they’d worked as carpet weavers in workshops back home).
Some of the families’ kids are just beginning to learn English, having started language classes at the U.S. military bases and now resuming classes in local schools.
Adults will learn English at Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center and through the Adult Education department at the South Bend Community School Corp.
“We do encourage them to pick it up as quickly as possible,” Pinter said of English.
Aleemi, who had worked in construction management, wants to improve his English so he can eventually go to college for computer science. His wife, who doesn’t speak English, has already begun the classes.
For now, Aleemi’s priority is the same as the other Afghans: land a job.
Pinter said none of the refugees have begun work yet, though there are good leads, mostly in manufacturing.
Because none of the Afghans have a driver’s license yet, volunteers provide most of the transportation. The United Way of St. Joseph County recently confirmed that it will provide 15 free seats for the URC’s Afghans through the Uber and Lyft rides that United Way supports.
There’s also a critical need for housing, especially three- to four-bedroom rental homes that are “safe and clean and that we feel comfortable putting families in,” Florin said.
After spending time in temporary homes, like empty rental units that the University of Notre Dame offered, half of the URC’s first arrivals have moved into apartments, Pinter said.
In Fort Wayne, Florin said, Catholic Charities is on track for its goal of making the Afghans self sufficient within four to six months.
The agencies want employment to soon replace aid. For every refugee, federal dollars provide $1,025 one time for basic needs, plus $1,000 for the sponsoring agencies’ operational costs, Pinter said.
Beyond that, local faith communities and an anonymous donor have provided the URC with start-up money for its Afghan program, which has hired a full-time case worker and a part-time volunteer coordinator.
And although Florin doesn’t know what the refugees have been through, he acknowledged, “We need to be prepared to provide support because they’ve been through a lot of trauma.”
Members of Clay Church in South Bend know little about the four single Afghan men that they’re assisting in a shared apartment — other than the men have wives and children back home. That comes across in the family photos that the men and church members show each other on their phones, church Executive Director Doug Fecher said.
“Each is excited to bring their families over,” Fecher said.
About 20 Clay members have been helping. The men try to reciprocate. While a Clay volunteer went grocery shopping with the men one day, another shopper knocked over boxes of goods and walked away. The Afghan men quickly turned around and started piling the boxes back into place, Fecher recalled, even though someone else tried to tell them they didn’t have to.
“They’ve (Afghans) been very conscientious to help in any way they can,” he added. “They’ve been inviting us for tea and cookies.”
The Afghans are coming from a predominantly Muslim country. But local agencies and volunteers, including Fecher, aren’t asking what faith the Afghans are. Does it matter to Clay as a United Methodist church?
“No, not at all,” Fecher said. “That is what we are called to do.”
“We laugh a lot because we trip over each other trying to understand each other,” he said of the language barriers, which they ease through hand gestures and by using the Google Translate app on church members’ phones to find the right Pashto words.
“We look forward to getting past the introductory phase and getting to know them,” he said. “Not just surviving, but enjoying the area.”
HOW TO HELP:
Financial donations help the most. Local faith communities have covered the material needs. There may be extra costs for dental work and translations. Catholic Charities needs help finding housing, especially for large families, plus volunteers to translate, mentor and provide rides.
• United Religious Community of St. Joseph County: 501 N. Main St., South Bend, IN 46601. (www.urcsjc.org, 574-282-2397)
• Catholic Charities: 1817 Miami St., South Bend, IN 46613. (www.ccfwsb.org, 574-234-3111)
Source: South Bend Tribune