Synagogues receive grant money to serve Afghan refugees

Volunteers from RAFT stand with a newly resettled Afghan family. Photos courtesy of Rick Cernohorsky

The Washington area has become home to many Afghans, who fled their homeland when the Taliban took over a year ago.

Local synagogues, churches and mosques have welcomed them, offering furniture, assistance in filling out forms and all-around help adjusting to life in the United States.To assist in these efforts, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington recently allocated $40,000 in grants to support the Afghan Refugee Resettlement programs at 23 area synagogues.

Individual synagogues received $1,000 to $2,500 to start new resettlement initiatives or enhance already started programs, said Guila Franklin Siegel, the council’s associate director.

The source of the grant money is The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Shapiro Foundation, in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This community has resettled a significant number of Afghans,” many of whom are living in Northern Virginia, said Franklin Siegel. Some of these refugees were first taken to a military base in this region, and “a significant number are staying here,” she said.

Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax has taken six families under its wings, a total of 35 people ranging in age from infancy to their 70s.

Initially, congregants thought they would sponsor a coat drive for the newly arrived refugees, said Judy Braune, who chairs the synagogue’s social action committee and is the lead for assisting one of the families. It turned out that the Afghans had already received plenty of donated coats.

The synagogue then connected with NOVA RAFT (Northern Virginia Resettling Afghan Families Together). At the time, that group was helping the refugees furnish their homes. Then congregants connected with the six families and began tutoring them in English, helping the children enroll in school, dealing with medical issues and helping locate the necessary legal support.

“There is a huge list” of ways the 30 to 40 synagogue members are helping, Braune said.She said the families were “traumatized” by their experiences.

For Braun, “It’s a big learning experience. Think how difficult it is to deal with bureaucracy, and then imagine doing so without speaking the language,” she said. “Imagine being plopped down in a foreign country where you don’t know the laws, and then do it on your own.”

Other synagogues also are helping the refugees adjust to life in the United States. Some of the newcomers have never had dental care and need extensive work, and volunteers are reaching out to find dentists as well as funding, Franklin Siegel said.

Many needed to be vaccinated before they received their Medicaid eligibility. One person needed financial help to purchase a car to get to work. Another requested a sewing machine so she could start earning a living, Franklin Siegel said.

Recently, the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville, held a Family Fun Day for the resettled families and their sponsors. More than 60 people enjoyed pizza, games, swimming and other activities.

In Reston, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation received $1,500 in grant money from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. The synagogue is working with a family of 11 and the Afghan resettlement team applied for the grant for education, said Kathy Laskey, co-lead of the resettlement team.

The grants were announced last month and haven’t been disbursed yet. Laskey said the youngest daughter of the family the congregation is hosting wants to go to college. “She’ll need a GED and to make college applications.” The grant money could be used to help pay for those costs, Laskey said.

Since Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation began working with the Afghan family, members helped the family find housing, they assisted with immigration paperwork and two synagogue member families donated cars.

Braune said one Temple B’nai Shalom congregant in her 80s has been so helpful and kind to an Afghan family that they call her “grandmother.” “Basically, they have adopted her, and she has adopted them.”

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