By Elizabeth Meade Howard
In the days after the Taliban entered Kabul in August 2021, Afghan families fled by the thousands. Those with ties to the U.S. were flown to military bases where they stayed for six or more weeks before traveling to their new communities. Three such large Afghan families have now been living in a hotel in Waynesboro, Virginia for three months awaiting their own apartments. The men worked as interpreters on the front lines with the Americans; one worked in the American embassy in Kabul.
“They are very stressed,” says Melissa Drumeller, a volunteer group leader for the IRC’s HOME Team in Waynesboro. “"It's hard for all of us to grasp the magnitude of this crisis. Can you imagine changing languages, alphabets, calendars, measurement systems, monetary systems, and even the layout of the week?
“The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was not intended to provide this kind of emergency response,” explains Diana Cole Connolly, the Development Coordinator for the IRC in Charlottesville. “The U.S. welcomed more than 65,000 Afghan evacuees to safe havens across the U.S. in just a few weeks. That is more refugees than the program admitted in the last two years combined. Every agency is overwhelmed – social security cards, work authorizations and benefits enrollment are all severely delayed.”
The IRC in Charlottesville has welcomed more than 300 Afghan evacuees since September 30 exceeding the number of refugees typically resettled during an entire year. Finding affordable housing has been difficult, especially for larger families. The IRC turned to groups like Drumeller’s to help find housing and welcome Afghans to communities outside of the city. (insert link to HOME program)
“The first day I met the families, I learned they had been in the hotel for more than three weeks straight,” Drumeller says. “I loaded them up and made four round trips to get them all to the park. Watching the mothers care for their infants, the fathers push their toddlers on the swings, and the older children cross the monkey bars reinforced to me that we are all the same and have the same basic needs. My husband had almonds in his car so he offered them. We later learned, from visiting them in their rooms, that nuts are a very common snack to offer as hospitality.
Waynesboro residents have been eager to meet immigrants’ needs. Drumeller’s church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, responded immediately with donations of all kinds.
The Springdale Mennonite Church followed in quick succession, raising more than $3000 for the displaced families.
“Donations came from everywhere,” says Drumeller. They are currently being housed in a warehouse owned by her husband, a builder and general contractor. “We got overwhelming physical donations – home furnishings, bath and kitchen supplies, hand made comforters and blankets. Many donations showed up on our front porch.”
The YMCA also opened its doors for free English language and art therapy classes. The Building Blocks and Learn programs teach English and provide laptops for men and women in beginning and advanced English classes.
Zahir Mahmoud, a local retired librarian, grew up in Afghanistan. “With less than 24 hours’ notice, he came down to meet the first group and interpret for us,” says Jeff Fife, Executive Director of the Waynesboro YMCA. “He immediately made the immigrants feel comfortable and realized someone here truly could understand what they were going through as well as that Waynesboro and the Y was a welcoming place. It set a great tone and Zahir continues to visit and check in with the group.”
Some immigrants and the Waynesboro Post High group (those with physical/cognitive disabilities) crossed paths in a Y physical education class. An instructor noticed a young Afghan man with disabilities and invited him to participate with their group, says Fife. “The next week we got permission from the schools and included him formally in our classes. He’s able to not only exercise with programming specific to his disability but also with similar aged peers.”
Art therapy classes are held weekly in an open studio at the Y. Here children and adults together enjoy many creative mediums -- from drawing and painting to jewelry making.
“The goals are to get creative, express what might be hard to put into words, allow the kids to engage in enriching art experiences, and simply enjoy time interacting and creating together,” says Laura Tuomisto, Director, Shenandoah Art Therapy.
“The groups function more like an open studio due to the variety of ages,” she says. “It's been a joy for us to learn from the families a little about their culture and interact with their bright and cheerful children.”
English language testing took place at the Y enabling ESL programs to get started; they are now being taught remotely and in the hotels.
“All of these men have proven to be dedicated and hardworking, as well as community and family-oriented. It has been wonderful to see how they pull together and support each other,” says George Merryman, an ESL teacher with the Building Blocks Adult Education program. “The sense of community that these men have developed among each other has made it a joy to work with them.
“At the end of each class, we discuss the types of challenges that the students are facing and develop goals for the next class; we have explored such topics as sharing and acquiring personal information, medical needs, job-related protocols and language, bank accounts, and health insurance.”
Debi Fitzgerald, an English Language Arts instructor with SHINE Building Blocks, teaches a beginners’ class. Basic English includes vocabulary on the family and the American calendar along with videos and songs about days of the week and months of the year.
“I always love teaching by using songs. They enjoy the music and their children are also listening and learning as well, says Fitzgerald. “They are very happy, family-oriented people and eager to learn.”
The first priority however remains finding housing and life’s basics. Drumeller’s Team put out an immediate call for toys for children and quarters for doing laundry. “I realized I had to explain the money and show them where to put the quarters in the washing machine. The soap pods I gave them weren't helping because they were washing their clothes by hand,” she says.
In sharing such daily needs, trust and friendships are formed. “A young man wanted to put down my name as his emergency contact. Another told me I’m her sister now. Another didn’t want to leave a gathering, “Melissa will take care of us,’”, he said.
“It’s rewarding knowing I have relationships and am really helping these people.”