Stepping up to help Afghan refugees

A U.S. Marine assigned to 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit checks in evacuees before their flight, during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 18. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Local Jewish organizations are stepping up to help Afghan refugees who may be coming to this area, following the takeover of Afghanistan by the militant Taliban.

More than 1,000 refugees are expected to arrive to be resettled in the region by the end of September, most in Northern Virginia, according to Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington

Halber last week attended an online meeting with representatives of HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit assisting refugees based in Silver Spring, and Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), the federally chartered resettlement organization for the Washington region.

“The reality on the ground is that the refugees who come here are in dire need,” Halber said. “These people are literally coming here with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

Halber said volunteer opportunities for individuals, for social networks and for congregations exist.

“Job training, legal … they need medical personnel, nurses, people who can do medical intakes, they need synagogues to help outfit homes from top to bottom, they need people to pick families up from the airport or the base once they’ve been processed and drive them to their homes. There are so many volunteer opportunities available, and the overwhelming majority of them, you don’t have to have a professional skill set, you just need to dedicate time and have a good heart,” Halber said.

Halber said hundreds of volunteers and thousands of dollars in donations are needed for the effort.

“This is a clear application of Jewish values in a modern setting,” Halber said. “There’s a real need for American Jews to rise to the occasion … let’s step up and do our part to welcome these people.”

On Aug. 26, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington announced that its United Jewish Endowment Fund has granted $350,000 to Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area to help close its $1.8 million funding gap.

“Many of the immigrants seeking to resettle here have supported the United States in Afghanistan, and need our help now,” Gil Preuss, Federation CEO, said in a news release. “As Jews, we can deeply identify with their plight. And as Americans, we have a moral responsibility to help them settle here safely.”

HIAS has provided assistance and information to approximately 40 local synagogues and Jewish communities through its Welcome Campaign, Chelsey Berlin, HIAS community engagement director for Greater Washington, said in an email.

“By joining this campaign, these congregations have committed themselves to welcoming refugees to the United States. Many of these synagogues have already done the incredible work of co-sponsoring refugee families in recent years,” Berlin said.

The rapid takeover of the country has left many Afghans, including those who worked as translators for U.S. troops fearful of retribution by the Taliban. Many of those who worked with the United States were in the middle of the process of obtaining a Special Immigrant Visa before the takeover.

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process covers Afghan nationals employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or the International Security Assistance Force and their families.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, approximately 20,000 Afghans are currently waiting for an SIV, while as many as 70,000 Afghans are eligible to apply.

Applying for the SIV is a lengthy, 14-step process, involving six different U.S. agencies.

Applicants must demonstrate that they have worked for the U.S. or ISAF for a period of at least two years, and provide documentation of employment and submit to a background check.

“We’re going to be in this for the long haul,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS. “It’s an immediate crisis but it’s not going to have an immediate solution. We’re going to have thousands – many thousands – of Afghan refugees coming over to the United States who will need to be welcomed here.”

“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” said Evelyn Ganzglass, a member of Bethesda Jewish Congregation. “It’s just horrible to see what’s happening to people. So by the time they get here, they’re going to feel exhausted and traumatized by all of this.”

Ganzglass is part of an interfaith refugee assistance program, a partnership between Ganzglass’s synagogue, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque and the Maqaame Ibrahim Islamic Center.

In the past, the group has helped to welcome and resettle refugee families, setting up an apartment, providing rental assistance and assistance with tutoring and job training. Ganzglass said the group is looking for ways to help refugees again.

“The key at the moment is flexibility, because it’s pretty chaotic, not only in Afghanistan, but here as well,” Ganzglass said.

Ganzglass said helping refugees get settled in a new home is just the first, most immediate step, and that they will need help in the days to come as well.

How to help

As organizations prepare to aid Afghanistan refugee families expected to arrive in the Washington area, a number of organizations have announced efforts to assist.

Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax is taking part in interfaith efforts to support Afghan refugees. The synagogue will be holding a drive-through gift card drop-off from 9 to 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 19. Gift cards from Target, Walmart, Visa, Giant, Harris Teeter, Safeway and Aldi are requested.

HIAS has a website dedicated to providing information to those who wish to assist refugees fleeing Afghanistan, at

The State Department has a website with information for assisting Afghans in leaving their country, at

Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area has a website at; click on the “take action” link for more information.

Those interested in joining The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s funding collaborative are encouraged to contact Federation’s United Jewish Endowment Fund at [email protected].

Individuals looking to form a community of volunteers may contact the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington by emailing Executive Director Ron Halber at [email protected].

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