Local Area Tops US in New Afghan Refugees

Local Area Tops US in New Afghan Refugees

One of the Christ Church Alexandria Humanitarian families as they were arriving in the US after the fall of Kabul.

One of the Christ Church Alexandria Humanitarian families as they were arriving in the US after the fall of Kabul.

“Last September we were told not to worry by the resettlement agencies, that refugees won’t resettle here in Alexandria because it is too expensive,” says Whitney Mallory, Refugee Ministry Coordinator for Historic Christ Church Alexandria. “Now northern Virginia has surpassed California as the largest resettlement area but rent prices have continued to escalate. It’s debilitating.”     

Since May when Mallory came, Christ’s Church has welcomed 31 new families. “The biggest challenge we’ve had is the exponential growth in numbers. It’s expensive to give rent assistance to more.” In addition, she says, “Since we care deeply about these families we use a CARE Team module in which members of the congregation volunteer to be a friend to the families. It is really a big indefinite commitment for a CARE Team.”

The CARE team members help with what the family needs. It could be accompanying them to a parent-teacher conference. “It is a foreign concept. Everything is so intimidating.” She explains there are all of the cultural differences. For instance, the confusing concept of decorating with pumpkins but not actually cooking with them. Or she says the CARE Team member could be having dinner with the family or taking them to a doctor’s appointment. “With 31 new intakes we can’t keep up.”

Mallory says the intake process often begins when a family gets referred to the Church Lazarus Help line. She thinks a lot of it is word of mouth. “I think we have established a reputation as a place that will help and listen. ‘Here is a list of churches who may be able to help.’ One of the counselors takes the information and funnels it to me. I call the family and find out their specific needs.” 

Mallory says the families also face legal obstacles as they attempt to negotiate the paperwork to gain asylum. 

Mary Nell Bryant, an Arlington resident, works with Christ Church Afghan refugees. She has just spent two days from 9 am-6 pm in workshops sponsored by Lutheran Social Services of the Capital Area to assist Afghan refugees with the process. “I am currently working with a family at Christ Church that has to fill out 4 separate applications for asylum because of U.S. definitions. They don’t have a resettlement agency and don’t know what to do.”

Bryant says you sit with them and help them answer the questions. The refugee has to fit into certain categories to qualify. She says some of the questions are difficult culturally for them to understand and they may recognize the words but not what they mean. Bryant can help because she knows the language, the country and the culture. 

Part of the process is to fill out a declaration of why they are applying for asylum, to tell their story. “It is a painful experience. I had a family earlier this week; the father had been blown up. It was terrible. How do you prove that? They don’t have death certificates.”

Also they don’t have an address to fill in that blank—just the district where they live. Some of them have … filled out the wrong family name somewhere along the way and then can’t prove who they are and can’t get a job. “They are scared, hungry, beaten up and then someone asks them their name.”

Bryant explains the process has security questions like the name of their first pet. But Afghans don’t have pets. The craziest question was “from what City did you first see the ocean.”

Mallory explains there are really two categories of Afghan refugees. It could be that they have been established with a resettlement agency and their benefits have run out and they are not sustainable yet. “This is why we were set up. The average family needs 3-5 more months of help.” She says this is about half of their referrals but it is growing.

The other category is families who have settled somewhere else that doesn’t have a vibrant Afghan community, maybe someplace like Minnesota. Often the wife doesn’t speak English and is lonely and depressed.They have already experienced so much trauma. But since there is a large Afghan community in the Northern Virginia area, they opt to relocate.

Mallory says the first step is to identify why the Afghan refugee is calling. Do they need rent assistance, English classes, child care? She explains there are a myriad of needs. Mallory says Alexandria has an amazing workforce development program where they offer paid internships. “We have a strong relationship with them. They help with employment or English lessons or help getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.” Mallory says the families usually come with SNAP and Medicaid so part of the benefit system is working. 

The workforce program also helps locate child care although Mallory says the trend when families come with young children the wife often stays at home. And she adds that St. Paul’s has been generous in offering tuition assistance for child care in their program.

“And we’re lucky that ALIVE! just started back up their furniture program.” She says if ALIVE! gets a donation, “we call immediately to get a sofa or dining room table from them. We prioritize beds and new bedding. When we find a family is sleeping on the floor, we don’t wait for donations. We place an order immediately and have it shipped to their home.” 

Mallory says she works with the family on their preferences “I talk to the husband who usually speaks English. ‘Show this to your wife — what color does she want?’ We want them to have personal agency. 

“We also partner with ALIVE! to use their truck for moving furniture, and volunteers come from St. Stephens-St. Agnes who need community hours to help us move furniture. Finding furniture and moving it takes a lot of my time.” 

Mallory says they also work with ALIVE! on smaller household items such as dishes, shower curtains, clothes hangers, bathroom rugs. “Also if I need something I look around, go on NextDoor until I find it.” She says some of the CARE team members take orders for the food pantry since the family may be working and have no car and unable to get there.

She says they plan to resume the community dinners sometime this fall. “We try to get the families in touch with each other. It’s really a big celebration and a happy moment. New families meet veteran families and can share information and experiences.”

Mallory says she found out about this new position at Christ Church this spring, and it seemed like a good fit for her. “My husband is a Navy officer, an attache to Ukraine so I’ve lived abroad a lot. I knew what it felt like to be in a foreign land.” She says she was teaching in an international school in Ukraine and was part of the first group to be evacuated. She finished the school year online as she watched her students leave for Dubai and Italy. When the airspace closed, they were sitting in line at the border and finally abandoned their cars and walked over the border. She says so many of our families their ministry sees feel stress and grief for their families left behind.

Bryant says she first fell in love with Afghanistan when she was a backpacking hippy. When she got a chance to go back to Afghanistan with the State Department, she spent 15 years there. “Now I know I want to help Afghans. … It is tortuous work to reach an understanding between two cultures but it is rewarding.”