To Heal the World by Brad Stutzman from The Williamson County Sun - July 17, 2022
Just when life in these not-so-United States was looking its most dark and divisive, a light came shining through at Sun City’s Retreat Amenity Center.
Marian Kobrin stood at the front of the meeting room and spoke the Hebrew words “Tikkun Olam.”
The phrase means “to heal the world.” Appropriate, given the program that followed. Marian belongs to Havurah Shalom, Sun City’s Jewish congregation. On the afternoon of June 26, they hosted a presentation by Austin Jews and Partners for Refugees. During the next two hours we heard from representatives from that non-profit, as well as Afghan refugees AJPR has helped resettle locally. Russ Apfel, AJPR’s refugee coordinator, and coordinating committee member Cathy Campbell, walked us through the numbers.
Since September 2021, nearly 100,000 Afghans have been airlifted out of their homeland. Approximately 1,000 have resettled in Austin. AJPR has received about $175,000 in donations, with Russ noting 60 to 70 apartments have been furnished through donations of furniture and other household necessities. AJPR offers a Swiss Army Knife of services. They have only one paid staffer. Volunteers pick displaced people up at airports, feeding individuals and families with “welcome meals.” They provide the Afghans temporary hotel living quarters and help them find what’s becoming a contradiction in terms around here — affordable housing.
They also steer them toward English as a Second Language classes. Volunteers help the newly arrived with so many things you and I take for granted: How do I get a driver’s license? Where do I shop for groceries? How do I enroll my kids in school? All of this, I note with cheerful optimism, is accomplished through united efforts of those too-often-squabbling descendants of Abraham. All this is accomplished through the efforts of Jews, Christians and Muslims and the places where each of them prays. They worship separately. They work together.
Russ put it this way: “There have just been so many giving people who came together, regardless of race or religion.” It’s an old story but it’s still ongoing; the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Russ noted his own grandparents came to America in the 1890s, fleeing religious persecution. Predating that — even predating the great Lady Liberty in New York’s harbor — Exodus exhorts us. As does Leviticus and Deuteronomy. So much attention given, so often, to not turning our backs on the strangers in our midst.
Russ introduced Wahab Rasoul and Rahim Mohamad, who put human faces on the lofty ideals being expressed. And then these strangers were strangers no more. Wahab’s English is, by his own acknowledgement, a work in progress. But in Afghanistan he was a multi-talented professional; working as an engineer, a TV station manager and also a singer. He spoke of how religious faith can be hijacked by fanaticism.
“They (the Taliban) kill singers and the media,” he said. “It’s not Islam. They (the Taliban) are wrong.” Wahab followed a long and winding road to freedom. From Qatar to Germany to El Paso to Austin. Now, he earns his keep as an engineer and sings for free. Wahab fielded questions from the audience and one woman urged him into song. He sang in his native Pashtu. Eyes closed and a look of ecstasy on his face. We didn’t understand a word, but his joy conveyed so much. Suddenly I was reminded of that famous Life magazine photo, where the refugee boy from war-torn Europe is clutching a pair of new shoes to his chest. Rahim, meanwhile, has lived in the U.S. with his wife and children for the past five years. In Afghanistan, his wife was a teach- er and he’d served as a translator for the U.S. Army. “That’s why our life was in danger,” he said. And then — in what would have beena humorous understatement, were it not so deadly serious — “We were not liked by the Taliban.”
Raim’s work as a translator for our military earned him a Special Immigrant Visa and he came directly to Austin in 2017. He and his wife have a 3-year-old son who was born here. That makes the kid an American citizen, just the same as you and me. Raim introduced their shy and smiling daughter. She sported a yellow dress, with a matching bow in her hair, and will enter third grade this fall. An equally shy, squirming son, dressed in a Batman shirt, is headed for first grade.
During the past five years Raim has worked in a warehouse, plus driven for Uber and Lyft. Now, as a case manager for Refugee Services of Texas, he helps other immigrants get resettled. Russ said that because of his Special Immigrant Visa, Raim has a path to U.S. citizenship. But unfortunately not all refugees do. “Right now there is no way for them to return home,” Russ said. “This is their home.” Raim said he had one big advantage, in that he came to America already fluent in English. But he doesn’t want other refugees to be held back — he doesn’t want them to hold themselves back — just because they have to learn a new language. “Austin, Texas, is a good place for people who want to start their life from zero,” he said. “It’s hard to start from zero, but now I am in a good place in Austin. I faced a lot of challenges. “Everybody, even if their English is zero, their kids will have a good and bright future. Here you have an opportunity to study— especially for the kids. If you take this opportunity, your life will be bright.”
In the Jewish tradition there is a belief that “To save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world.” So we do what we can, when and where we can, for as long as we can. Tikkun Olam. Heal the world.
CLINIC HIGHLIGHTS - February 2022 Stories of Hope The beginning of 2022 has offered many opportunities for Hope Clinic to make a big impact. We have been able to assist in the resettlement of some of the over 1,000 Afghans who have been brought to our area to start a new life. The staff has seen many who have high blood pressure, diabetes, and other primary care needs. Their stories are hard and their needs are great, but we are honored to be able to relieve some healthcare concerns for those who come through our doors.
Refugee Services of Texas (RST), Austin Jews and Partners for Refugees (AJPR), HEB, and Hope Clinic have joined together to offer COVID vaccinations to our Afghan neighbors. They have no transportation, do not yet speak English, and are striving to get their children in school and find jobs, so they face challenging barriers to accessing any kind of healthcare. Our solution? We are taking the vaccines to them where they live in extended stays and apartments around the city. Nonprofits throughout Austin are overwhelmed but determined to help these people who have left behind their homes, friends, and in many cases family members in Afghanistan. Your support means the world to us, but more importantly, it means the world to our patients.
Austin Jews and Partners for Refugees Newsletter, December 2021
On behalf of the Austin Jews for Refugees group, we would like to sincerely thank you, our volunteers and donors for all of your support of our activities. What had started out as a small group of volunteers has blossomed into a large, interfaith effort to support the newly arriving Afghan refugees. Our group has grown to almost 200 volunteers and has taken on a huge role in supporting Refugee Services of Texas in resettling 500 refugees since September with another 500 coming to Austin in the next three months. We are now partnering with at least 5 churches, 4 synagogues, NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women), JFS (Jewish Family Services), MCSS (Muslim Community Support Services) along with the Afghan and Muslim communities.
Many of you have served on at least one of our groups, led by experienced Team Leaders (all passionate volunteers). They include our Airport Team (greeting new arrivals at the airport and driving them to their first temporary hotel or Airbnb home), Welcome Meals Team (home-cooked Afghan meals, stored at Congregation Beth Israel’s kitchen, and delivered to every new family on the day of arrival), Food and Grocery team (picking up and delivering groceries and Halal meats the morning after arrival, as well as Orienting new families to the features of their residence), Apartment Set Up Team (cleaning, furnishing, and shopping for our families’ first permanent home), Clothing Team (collecting and distributing to all ages, infant through adult), Donations (pick up and distribution of furniture and home goods for apartment setups), Transportation (to medical visits, grocery shopping, check cashing, meetings at Refugee Services of Texas offices, etc.), Technology (we are raising funds to provide every family with a Chromebook and smart phone), and Finances/Fundraising.
We are also focusing on two new projects in the coming year:
Helping New Moms and Babies will address the many pregnant women in need of pre and post-partum care as well as furnishing their babies with all they need. Watch for more details of opportunities to get involved.
On behalf of our AJR Steering Committee and Team Leaders, our partner Refugee Services of Texas and all of our interfaith partners, we thank you for your compassion and generosity. You all make a difference in the lives of Afghan refugees. Sincerely,