Congregational Church Welcomes Afghan Refugees

Volunteer-run committee in South Glastonbury prepares for arrival of Afghan families

NOELLE AVENA

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban brought a group of at least 37,000 refugees into the U.S. As the government grapples with the crisis, a local community scrambles to make room for the incoming refugees. The group keeps the family’s details secure as a precaution, but is open to community support and involvement.

Mike Chernovetz is the team leader for the South Church Refugee Resettlement Group.

“The church has a somewhat long history of doing this. Before I was a member, the church did refugee resettlement work with Kosovo refugees. More recently, in 2016, we got involved with the government agency IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) in New Haven. They work with the state to take refugees who were vetted and either help them resettle directly or work with groups like ours, which are church, synagogue, mosque, or non-religious groups, to help resettle these families,” said Chernovetz.

The church takes on responsibilities like finding employment, registering the children for school, setting up medical aid, getting a pediatrician, renting an apartment and furnishing it, having the rent start appropriately, organizing transportation, teaching them the bus system, helping with obtaining driver’s licenses, guiding them
through government forms and programs, and understanding American culture.

“When you’ve lived in Afghanistan your whole life, navigating through a grocery store for the first time is quite a thing. Things like that- what most Americans would take for granted- are what we prepare them for.”

Mike Chernovetz

Fundraising is another vital piece to success.

“In the first couple months, depending on how fast we can get employment, it’s important we have groceries and the first bills of utilities and rent ready. Often, they’re coming here with nothing but the shirt on their backs. We try to give them that buffer so they have time to get a job. Some of them can right away, others have low English
skills, and it takes a while,” he said.

Although it’s a daunting responsibility, some jobs can be done with little to no English skills, like working in a restaurant kitchen, and Chernovetz remarked that there are a lot more “help wanted” signs now than
there were in 2016.

With tens of thousands of refugees waiting on army bases to be resettled, and the experience with the Kosovo refugees under their belt, the group streamlined their process and acted swiftly.

The church formed a team of around 30 people, and Chernovitz found a role for everyone. Some take care of getting job opportunities ready for the family. Older “church ladies” can babysit the children and help teach English. Those who can drive are prepared to help the family with transportation until enough money can be saved up for a car. Younger members are helpful when it comes to technology- using Google translate and teaching both
the refugees and church members about virtual communication is highly valuable.

Up until 48 hours before the family arrives, the committee doesn’t know who the refugees will be or what level of English they know. In that 48 hours before, the group finally gets the stats. Although there are usually two adults, it’s not until this time that they learn how many kids there are, their ages and genders, and the language skills. Until then, the group needs to prepare for any scenario. What can be done is also affected by Congress. As bills are passed or rejected concerning Visas and resettlement benefits, the group needs to be flexible. To buffer these changes, the group uses Go Fund Me to involve the wider community and garner support for their efforts.

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