A group of residents have formed a Neighborhood Support Team and are seeking volunteers to assist them with the sponsorship and support of three Afghan families that will be resettling in Falmouth.
The 28 chairs set up in the Waquoit Congregational Church Parish Hall filled up quickly as the clock neared 6:30 PM on Tuesday, September 21. By the time the meeting began, a total of about 45 residents had arrived, all masked and spaced out around the room, to attend the group’s first organizational meeting.
The Neighborhood Support Team, led by the Reverend Nell Fields, JoAnn Fishbein, Marguerite McElroy, Jane Parhiala, and Janet Simons-Folger, has also teamed up with the Shapiro Foundation and Ascentria Care Alliance, two organizations that have dedicated themselves to assisting with the settlement of Afghan families.
Technically speaking, the families coming to America are not recognized as refugees by the US government and are actually known as “humanitarian parolees,” defined as someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States who comes here for a temporary period of time due to an emergency. The group opted for the term “evacuees” instead.
Ms. Fields gave opening remarks and explained that she grew up in a military family. Her father served in three wars and her sister, brother-in-law, and both nephews served in Afghanistan.
“This topic of helping our sisters and brothers from Afghanistan is very near and dear to my heart,” she said. “It’s actually personal for me. Just listening to [my family’s] stories, hearing how wonderful and beautiful the Afghani people are, and how much help they gave us, and now it’s our turn. These evacuees, many of them left their country because they didn’t have a choice. We have a choice to open the door wide and open our hearts wide. Falmouth is such a fabulous community, and I know we’re going to do this right.”
Ms. McElroy and Ms. Fishbein outlined the support team’s needs and mission and highlighted the working groups they have established that now need to be staffed with volunteers. Falmouth is expecting to receive three Afghan families in the near future, even as soon as two weeks from now.
“What these people need—and no one can doubt that—is a feeling of safety, a feeling that they are welcome where they are,” Ms. McElroy said. “We will share our culture and learn theirs. We will connect them to resources that empower them to become independent builders of their own futures in this country.”
The support group has created 10 committees that will assist the families in designated areas: administration, education, employment, fundraising, housing, healthcare, supplies, transportation, treasurer and translation. Organizers explained that while all of these committees are important and will contribute to the cause, some needs are more immediate than others. For example, funding, translators and transportation are of the utmost concern right now, while education and employment will play a bigger role later down the line, once the evacuees are settled.
Ms. Fishbein said that her group met with Ascentria in Worcester earlier, where another 150 families will be resettled, to discuss the best strategies moving forward.
“One thing that really impressed me was that they talked about reimagining resettlement, trying to do it differently,” Ms. Fishbein said. “The way they imagined it was that as a community, we need to create a profile. Who we are, what we have to offer and fill that out as well as we can. They will have people come to their community first… and they will show them the profiles from towns they think might be a good match. They’ll give the evacuees the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t think I can be in Falmouth, it’s too far away from my mosque, it’s too far away from my community.’ We have a lot to offer as a community but it might not work for everybody, so they’re trying as best they can to let evacuees participate in their placement.”
Ms. Fishbein said that since three homes have already been offered up for use by the families for the next six months to a year, the physical housing problem has been mostly solved. Fundraising, however, has become their main call to action.
The support team’s goal is to raise $10,000 for each of the three families. Any money raised before September 30 will be matched with a donation from the Shapiro Foundation, Ms. McElroy said.
Another pressing problem is finding translators for the families once they arrive. Only about five percent of Afghanistan is English-speaking while the majority of the country uses the official languages, Dari Persian and Pashto. Additionally, there are regional dialects of Afghanistan that the incoming families may speak—Farsi, Arabic, Uzbek. It is unclear which languages the families coming to Falmouth speak, or how much English they know. Because of the wide variety of potential languages, the support team is seeking translators with experience in any of these dialects.
Transportation is another issue that the team is seeking to solve with volunteer drivers. The evacuees are, of course, not expected to have valid driver’s licenses nor a vehicle for themselves, and public transportation on Cape Cod is spotty at best. Assisting these families in getting where they need to be will be a part of the resettlement process.
The nearest mosque—a place of worship for people belonging to the Muslim faith—is in South Dartmouth, a 44-mile drive from Falmouth’s Main Street. There is also an Islamic Center in Osterville, but even that is still 15 miles outside of downtown Falmouth.
About halfway through the meeting, a young man stood up to share some insight on the situation, as he lived a similar experience when he came to the United States as a refugee.
“Coming here as a refugee and coming here as an evacuee is a little different,” said Ajito Odolla, who came to the United States in 2010 after fleeing his home country of Ethiopia in 2004. “It’s not easy to go to a different country when you have nothing. And I mean nothing. We came with nothing, just our clothes. No IDs, no social security, nothing. When you come here as a refugee, there are people there who work with you. That’s how I met JoAnn and Mike [Fishbein]; so they’re my second family.”
When Mr. Odolla came to the US after spending six years in a refugee camp, he was 18 years old and had landed in Baltimore, Maryland. His caseworker was Emily Fishbein, Mr. and Ms. Fishbein’s daughter. As a refugee, he was given some aid by the government for a period of time to get settled, but once that period was over, they were on their own. But even after the six-month contract with his caseworker expired, Emily Fishbein continued assisting the family on her own.
“Emily was there to help and guide us and she took us everywhere,” Mr. Odolla said. “To the hospitals, to social services, even reading our e-mails, she was there for us. She wasn’t getting paid for it, she was just there for us because we connected to, well, her family, and my family. That’s why I’m actually here on the Cape—because of her. If it wasn’t for her, I think my family’s lives would’ve been different, but she made our lives a little easier.”
Mr. Odolla went on to say that coming to a new country with nothing is always going to be hard, no matter the circumstances that cause it or reception received. Although these evacuees will not be afforded the same aid that Mr. Odolla received as a refugee, the support team is working hard to act as a surrogate “caseworker” entity for the families and is hoping to be as helpful in settling and assisting these families as Emily Fishbein was to Mr. Odolla.
“Just seeing your faces right now, willing to help… when I came here, I didn’t know what was going on,” Mr. Odolla said. “But then you talk about everything [during the presentation] and it makes sense. That’s the only way to do it; these aren’t refugees, so we have to do it for them. If we get the money and help them, then I think it’s possible.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Neighborhood Support Team’s mission resettling Afghan families or signing up as a volunteer is encouraged to send an email to NSTCapeCod@gmail.com. Donations can be made through the team’s GoFundMe page under Cape Cod NST. Checks can be made out to Waquoit Congregational Church, with a note in the memo field NST Cape Cod, and mailed to 15 Parsons Lane in Waquoit.