It is Time to Stand for Refugees

Jonathan Kho '23

               Imagine having to start a new life with nothing. No home, no family, no friends, no job, nothing. Just the clothes you have on your back, the shoes on your feet, and a rough future ahead of you. This was unfortunately the reality Afghan refugees faced as U.S. troops retreated from Afghanistan, leaving the nation in the hands of the Taliban. Joe Biden announced the removal of U.S. troops in April 2021 saying, “It is time to end America's longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.” As a result of Biden’s decision, the Taliban had the opportunity to conquer territory including the capital of Afghanistan. This caused the Afghan president to flee the nation, leaving the government to collapse under the rule of the Taliban. The Council on Foreign Relations reported, “Later that day, the Taliban announced they had entered the presidential palace, taken control of the city, and were establishing checkpoints to maintain security.” The Council of Foreign Relations also explained, “They have cracked down on protesters, reportedly detained and beaten journalists, and re-established their Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which under previous Taliban rule enforced prohibitions on behavior deemed un-Islamic.” Families, including teens and children the same age as students from the Saints community, have been attempting to flee the country. However, efforts to do so have been difficult since the Taliban took over the Kabul airport on August 31. While this prohibited many Afghans from escaping the nation, Joe Biden continued to stand by his decision of keeping U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

 

                For those who were successful in fleeing the country, they continued to face struggles despite leaving the physical conflict in Afghanistan. Refugees who come to the United States are able to have a chance at getting citizenship. However, it is difficult for refugees to find connections in getting this because their professional certifications don't transfer to other countries. Additionally, refugees struggle with language barriers, making it harder for families to get homes. The Director of External Engagement and Service Learning, Mr. Yee, explains, “There are stories of doctors, lawyers, accountants working janitorial jobs here because the skill can't easily be transferred over through paperwork (official documents addressing your occupation). Earlier this year, we hosted someone named Nargis Zadran, who was the principal of an Afghanistan girl’s school. She probably couldn't qualify for the same thing here because she actually doesn't have any sort of teaching background.”

               

                How does our school play a role in this issue? Multiple leaders, including two students from our student body, have created and partnered with organizations to help support teenage Afghan refugees in the area. 

 

                Two students, Finn Hartman (‘23) and Julianne Karol (‘23), began an organization that helps refugees through material goods. Finn had the idea for this organization just after Kabul fell. He housed an Afghan refugee for six months until he and his family found her a school and a house in Maryland. Finn explains, “She too moved with just a backpack of clothes and her computer, and while she lived with me and my family, she told us her story and the story of other refugees that fled with her. The horrors that she and other Afghans leaving Kabul faced made me grateful for the safety I had and the everyday items I was using.” As a result of this experience, Finn began donating his own “personal belongings” to other refugees he knew. He then worked alongside her to gain resources and learn more about how he can help them. 

 

                By the end of this year, Finn had the resources to create his own group, “Saints Supporting Refugees.” That’s when Julianne jumped in. She and Finn have been collecting resources from students and teachers to drop off goods for other refugees. Finn explains, “This allows Afghan refugees to receive clothes, cutlery, toiletries, technology, blankets, furniture, and really any other item they need.” Additionally, Mr. Yee has been working consistently with Julianne and Finn to discuss future plans and what their next steps will be. In doing this, Finn and Julianne hope to expand their horizons to other refugees, not only in Afghanistan. Finn explains, “As Ukraine continues to be attacked by Russia, Ukrainian refugees have begun to make their way to Alexandria. They have been through similar horror and devastation that the Afghan refugees recently went through, and we are ready to welcome them with open arms and offer help in any way we can.” 

 

                Another Saint supporting refugees is Mr. Yee. He has partnered with Christ Church Alexandria Ministry to help Afghan refugees adjust to the Virginia area. Mr. Yee explains how at the end of August 2021, he and many others in the community felt they should support Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons. Usually, many believed in packing or donating items to support refugees, similar to Julianne and Finn’s group, however, Mr. Yee wanted to focus on what the school can offer “beyond material goods.'' So, this led Mr. Yee to partner with Christ Church Alexandria Ministry to support the refugees on a personal level. This opportunity gives students the chance to learn and support Afghan teenagers in person by making them feel more comfortable in Virginia by talking to teens living in the area. While this program involves Afghan refugees, it also involves refugees from other nations as well. Mr. Yee explains, “There's actually a Saudi family. They have two teenagers, older teenagers, that have some amount of social life at this point in their schools. But, you know, providing an additional opportunity for outreach is something that even that oldest son was like, ‘yeah, I just want to talk with new people.’ And so we would be serving a large community that is going to skew towards recent arrivals.” 

 

                Mr. Yee, Finn, and Julianne got to share their plans with the Saints body during Saints Missions Day where students began to learn more about the issues regarding Afghan refugees. Our middle school librarian and head of Missions Day, Ms. Blowers initially had the idea of focusing Missions Day on Afghan refugees when the Ukraine and Russia conflict erupted. Ms. Blowers thought that having the Saints community learn about these refugees would help us “connect with our community.” So why Afghanistan right now? Since many groups at our school, such as Christ Church Alexandria Ministry and Finn and Julianne’s organization, already partner with groups that support Afghan refugees, she felt it was best for students to hear about this issue and further support these groups. 

 

               With the Afghan refugee crisis being a serious issue, Ms. Blowers found creative ways to spread awareness to students of different ages. Ms. Blowers explains, “Fortunately, there are some really wonderful picture books and videos designed especially for younger children that help share the stories of refugees. These materials obviously don't go into the depth as resources for older children or adults, or share the more gruesome details. Rather, they focus on the need to offer kindness to strangers, especially those seeking safety or who are just arriving in a new and unfamiliar place.” During Missions Day, students watched lower schoolers and middle schoolers recite lines from poems and picture books regarding the issue of refugees. Additionally, Ms. Blowers gave Finn and Julianne, and other student-led organizations involved with Afghan refugees, an opportunity to explain how students can support their organizations. 

 

                 So why should students care about this? Finn explains, “As a St. Stephens' community, many of us might not understand how fortunate we are to have clothes to wear, a bed to sleep in, or even food to eat. Most Afghan refugees don't have these items and have to live by sleeping on the floor or skipping meals.” While these struggles seem distant, many suffer from these issues in our community.

Ms. Blowers explains, “While they may not be students at our school, they live in our city, shop in the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, and have the same hopes and dreams for their futures as students at our school.”  

 

                However, we should not only care about these refugees because they are suffering in the Alexandria area. Mr. Yee further explains, “Yeah. I'm a strong believer that we are called to care about people, not because they're from where they're from. But because they're people…not only should we care about Afghan refugees, well, we should continue to care about Syrian refugees, we should care about people fleeing violence in Central America or droughts in Sub Saharan Africa. All of these people are in need of assistance in some way. And though it may not be our job to support it, it's not our job to support any assistance necessary. The fact of the matter is that there's a need, and no one is satisfying it. And so there's an opportunity to help.” 

 

                  If you are interested in taking these opportunities to support these refugees, here are the resources and action steps to do so. To send resources to Finn and Julianne’s group, you can sign up for their spreadsheet that has materials they need to send to Afghan refugees in the area (finnha23@sssas.org, julianneka23@sssas.org). Additionally, if you are currently interested in meeting refugees in person, you can join Book Buddies, led by Charlotte Heimbach, Juliana Chiaramonte, and Mary V Carnell, to talk to and read to Afghan refugees in person(charlottehe23@sssas.org, julianachiaramonte22@sssas.org, marycarnell22@sssas.org). Additionally, you can email Mr. Yee signed up for Christ Church Alexandria program, which offers students an opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with refugees (dyee@sssas.org).