Synagogues Continue Aiding Afghan Refugees Two Years After Taliban Takeover

A group of people in t-shirts pose for a picture outside.
Germantown Jewish Centre volunteers at a picnic honoring the Afghan refugees they assisted | Courtesy of Ivan Rosenberg

Aug. 15 will mark two years since the Taliban entered Kabul, Afghanistan, seizing the presidential palace and overthrowing the government, leading to hundreds of thousands of Afghan evacuees seeking refuge in the U.S.

Though no longer in the news cycle, efforts to support and rehome refugees in Philadelphia have not ceased. Jewish congregations, in partnership with other faith groups, have led the charge to assist Aghans seeking help in the area.

“We know from our experience as Holocaust survivors, as pogrom survivors, what it’s like, how difficult it is to adjust to a new land,” said Judi Bernstein-Baker, former executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania and head of Mishkan Shalom’s Refugee and Immigrant Rights Committee.

When three Afghan refugees arrived in Philadelphia a year ago, Mishkan Shalom stepped up to help them.

Mishkan Shalom has worked alongside St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Germantown to help the refugee men find temporary housing and jobs and navigate the U.S. education and medical system. A couple of months ago, a congregant donated a used car to a refugee. Another helped him learn to drive. The congregations raised $2,000 to support the trio.

In April, HIAS PA honored Mishkan Shalom and St. Vincent with the Golden Door Award for their work in assisting the refugees.

Germantown Jewish Centre is helping refugees in similar ways. The synagogue’s refugee and immigrant support committee resettled an Afghan family last May and organized a synagogue-wide supply drive to stock the family’s temporary housing. Congregants visit the family’s home twice a week to tutor their three children.

“The mom of the family grew up where the Taliban would not let girls go to school, so she’s preliterate in her own language,” said Naomi Klayman, part of GJC’s refugee and immigrant support committee. “And we have a couple of tutors who are working with her to help her learn English.”

GJC plans to resettle another family in July.

Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood has collected donations for refugees and immigrants — not just Afghans — to furnish their temporary homes. MLRT volunteers have organized donation collections for the past 13 years. HIAS PA visits the warehouse of sorted donations to stock temporary refugee housing, many of which are Airbnbs. 

In the past month and a half, MLRT has provided supplies to 70 refugees from Iraq, Guatemala, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, according to congregant and volunteer Linda Brock.

MLRT ensures that the items donated are high quality and culturally relevant to refugees. If an incoming family is Muslim, they likely have little need for a set of wine glasses.

“I had people say to me, ‘I think this is too good for a refugee’, and it’s the most hurtful thing I’ve ever heard,” Brock said. “There might be something they don’t need, but it’s not because it’s too good.”

A group of people stand on stage, one behind a podium, as the group receives an award.
HIAS PA honors members of Mishkan Shalom and St. Vincent with the Golden Door Award for their efforts to help resettle Afghan refugees. | Courtesy of Lenny Thompson

Like MLRT, GJC, Mishkan Shalom and St. Vincent had outstanding relationships with HIAS PA before the influx of Afghan refugees arrived in Philadelphia. Mishkan Shalom and St. Vincent are part of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a grassroots immigrants advocacy effort. 

In recent years, HIAS PA has increased outreach to faith organizations to bolster volunteer resettlement efforts. Afghan refugees are still arriving in Philadelphia.

“Though the issue is no longer in the forefront of the news, we still continue to welcome new families who are navigating this experience now,” HIAS PA Community Engagement Specialist Anneke Kat said.

Many refugees from Afghanistan arrived in the U.S. under the status of humanitarian parole, which is not a guaranteed path to citizenship, unlike the refugee resettlement program. Afghan evacuees undergo the process of seeking asylum, at which point they can apply for a green card.

The bulk of resettlement efforts take place within three months of a refugee family arriving in Philadelphia. Working with a HIAS PA case manager, volunteers from faith communities pick up refugees from the airport and drop them off at their temporary home with a culturally appropriate hot meal in tow. While some volunteers may help to meet medical or education needs, others provide pro bono legal counsel. According to Kat, about 600-700 volunteers have assisted HIAS PA in an ongoing capacity.

After their first 90 days in the U.S., refugees may need additional assistance. HIAS PA provides more intensive case management for vulnerable populations and provides English language learning opportunities.

Synagogues such as GJC also work with HIAS PA in immigrant advocacy work. GJC has participated in the national Refugee Shabbat program and has had congregants meet with members of Congress to discuss immigration bills.

HIAS PA continues to look for volunteers.

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