Local agencies, volunteers help to resettle Afghan refugees

  • Refugees board a bus at Dulles International Airport that will take them to a refugee processing center after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31, in Dulles, Va. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/TNS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2021 4:15:58 PM
Modified: 11/25/2021 4:15:42 PM

GREENFIELD — With the help of local agencies and community volunteers, three Afghan evacuees settled into permanent housing this week.

“We’ve been very fortunate just to have really wonderful people doing exceptional work,” said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities, which has been helping to resettle Afghan evacuees in the region since Oct. 1. “Our circles of care are made up of people from all walks of life who have come forward to say we want to be part of a group that surrounds the Afghan arrivals with friendship, opportunity, resources — you name it.”

Catholic Charities, based in Springfield, is one of three agencies helping to resettle hundreds of the 60,000 or so refugees from Afghanistan, many of whom have been living on U.S. military bases, since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in August and the Taliban takeover.

“We’ve received 55 (Afghan humanitarian parolees) in the space of a month and a half,” said Buckley-Brawner, explaining that a “parolee” in this case is an individual granted special consideration for resettlement. “We knew from the get-go that the influx would be such a large number that there would be little way we could take them and put them into immediate permanent housing. The resources ... are slim, and it takes a while to get someone into permanent housing.”

The other agencies are Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, also in Springfield, and Ascentria Care Alliance, with a local office in West Springfield.

These agencies handle some of the major aspects of resettlement, including locating temporary and permanent housing, as well as helping them acquire documentation cards and setting them up for certain benefits.

“They start with relatively nothing in that realm,” Buckley-Brawner said.

For families with young people, she added, once housing is established, the agency works with local superintendents to enroll students into the district.

Buckley-Brawner said Catholic Charities partners with organizations throughout the region, including the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, and the Center for New Americans, based in Northampton with offices in Greenfield.

“They’ve been really valuable,” she said. “They provide English language learning, and they also assist us in helping find employment opportunities.”

Once the major aspects of resettlement are addressed, the agency relies on what Buckley-Brawner referred to “circles of care.”

“They become sort of an arm that helps the case workers, because they’re present to the arrivals in a way that case workers can’t be,” she explained.

Greenfield resident Tim Blagg, a member of the circle of care for the three young men who recently moved into a Greenfield apartment, said the role of the circles of care is to make the Afghan humanitarian parolees comfortable.

“We … welcome them, help them settle into the apartment or the house, show them where they can shop and how things work in this country,” Blagg explained. “Our people in the circle are taking them places and showing them how to go to the food pantry, and where to go for different services — the library, the YMCA, things like that.”

Last week, he said, he drove the men to the Hampshire Mosque in Hadley, where they met another Greenfield resident who offered to drive with them the next time.

Blagg, former editor of the Greenfield Recorder, said he learned of the opportunity through his church, the Second Congregational Church of Greenfield. He and his wife, Mary, volunteered to start a circle of care and began seeking others to join. Their circle, he said, is made up both of members of the congregation and people from outside of it.

“We were looking at the themes of what was going on in Afghanistan and, like a lot of people were saying, ‘Wow that’s terrible. … These people are being forced to leave because of the danger to them because of the Taliban,’” he said.

Also in Greenfield, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener of Temple Israel is planning to be a team leader, working under Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, to assist with resettlement.

“The last time I helped, we were mostly doing material support for families being placed in Springfield,” she said, explaining that Jewish Family Service, like other agencies, has helped in the past with the resettlement of refugees. “We gathered up a lot of furnishings and brought them (to Springfield). … We had a more limited role. But since we’ll have Afghan people right by, I think we’ll be more a part of their life in the area.”

Cohen-Kiener said her team is divided into five areas of responsibility: housing, education, medical needs, cultural adaptation and employment. The sixth area is the role she occupies, which involves coordinating efforts with Jewish Family Service.

“There’s another 10 people already who have said, ‘I teach ESL, I have furnishings,” she said. “We’re going to advertise widely … We’ll be tapping a lot of other volunteers for those jobs.”

Cohen-Kiener said in general, agencies try to find housing for people in clusters, so they’re not the only Afghan family in an area.

Maxine Stein, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, said while most people are resettled in the Springfield area, she’s hoping — with the support of organizations such as Temple Israel — to work more with the people of Franklin County.

“It’s a really lovely community, and there’s a beautiful host community,” Stein said, adding that the agency has located apartments in Turners Falls.

Last week, Blagg met the three Afghan humanitarian parolees settling in Greenfield, who he said are in their 20s and 30s, at a location in Holyoke where they were temporarily placed. Where the language barrier failed them, he said, Google Translate stepped in.

“One of them speaks a little English, the others don’t speak any at all,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to meet people who don’t know the same language.”

They all had jobs in Afghanistan working for the U.S. military.

“They’re gradually getting settled,” Blagg said Tuesday. “We just got their internet connection installed this morning, and we’ve been working with these different organizations — everybody has been very helpful.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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