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Catholics welcome Afghan newcomers

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Franciscan Father John O’Connor looked out to see huge white tents, Quonset huts, portable bathroom trailers and thousands of newly arrived Afghans moving around the makeshift refugee camp at Marine Corps Base Quantico. There were prayer tents — one for men and one for women — a dining tent with culturally appropriate food, and a place where representatives from the armed forces, government agencies and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services coordinated resettlement efforts. Though the Afghan families had experienced great tragedy as they fled their homes, Father O’Connor witnessed joy in the camp.

“You’d go in thinking, with everything they’ve been through, you’d see depression. But you don’t, at least physically, see that at all,” he said. “There’s this great sense of hope and relief that they’re in a safe place and how thankful they are for what everyone is doing for them. They look forward to learning more about this country and becoming part of this country.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the last group of Afghan nationals temporarily housed at Quantico as part of Operation Allies Welcome departed the base Dec. 22. Overall, more than 49,000 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in communities around the country, including in Northern Virginia. Since October, diocesan Catholic Charities has resettled more than 600 Afghans.

Many local Catholics stepped up to serve the Afghan newcomers while still at Quantico and since they’ve found more permanent housing. Father O’Connor’s parish, St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, was poised to help, thanks to its decades-old powerhouse outreach ministry, St. Francis House, which provides food, rent, utility assistance and more to those in need in eastern Prince William County.

While St. Francis House has seen increased need for aid to the community during the pandemic, parishioners still were eager to provide for the Afghan refugees, said Francia Salguero, director of St. Francis House. Because of increased security measures at Camp Upshur — the part of Quantico where the Afghans were housed — parishioners could not volunteer on base. Father O'Connor could visit because he previously was issued a long-term pass to help the other chaplains. But Triangle Catholics, working through the USCCB, were able to give.

“For the ones at Quantico Base, we got them sleeping bags, blankets, school supplies and toys for the kids. We also gathered different games and activities for the grownups to do. As the weather got colder, we started with jackets, socks, shoes, underwear, hats, mittens, all of the winter clothes,” said Salguero. “One of the parishioners, she got so into helping us that she was able to get us a $10,000 donation for the refugees. That was a huge help.” When Father O’Connor visited the camp a second time, children held signs thanking him and the parish.

Recently, the parish has worked through Lutheran Covenant Church in Dale City to support Afghan families who were resettled nearby. “When we meet with them at their homes, we go around the house and we make a list (of their needs): a shower curtain, towel, mats. We’re getting them blenders (to make baby food), pots and pans,” said Salguero.

They’re also providing halal foods that are allowed under Islamic law. “It's important that if you can go that extra mile (to get them the right kind of food), let’s do it because what they’re going through is extremely hard,” she said. “If (we) can at least give them a little bit of comfort through their food, that's important for us.”

Parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington also banded together to provide culturally appropriate food for the newly settled Afghans. The parish’s Helping Hands ministry, working with diocesan Catholic Charities, held a drive for dates, green tea, cumin, coriander and other foods, as well as for coats and cold weather accessories.

Monetary donations also enabled Catholic Charities to deliver a truckload of nonperishable food, including flour, sugar, cans of peaches and tomatoes, and vegetable oil, to the parish, where volunteers unloaded the truck and assembled 150 boxes of food for resettled families. 

Donna Hansberry, a member of Helping Hands, began talking with one man who came with his son to collect the food. As she showed them the way to the nearest bus stop, she learned about the family’s

efforts to acclimate since their arrival to the United States in March. “There are times in life where we’re able to give and there are times in life when we’re on the receiving end, but those things change,”

Hansberry said. She has no doubt that the newly arrived Afghans will be giving back to their adopted country as soon as they’re able.

Salguero said she learned from her parish how important it is to put faith into action. But helping newcomers is also something close to her heart as a Colombian immigrant. “It’s not that you wake up one morning and say, ‘I don’t want to live in this country. I don’t love my county.’ When you leave your country, it’s because you have to. They’re here because they didn’t feel safe in their country,” said Salguero. “For (the Afghans) to open their door and say, ‘Welcome’ (is incredible). When you come the second time, it’s like you’re part of the family. They’re hugging you.” 

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022

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