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A Personal Reflection On Supporting Refugees

Afghan Family Support

Personal Reflection—November 2021 to April 2022

Bill Biedenstein

Our team of seven applied to the International Institute back in early November (2021) to help a newly arrived Afghan family. Each of us completed the required background check and together we agreed to provide a sum of $3000 which would be held by the Institute but go directly to the family we were supporting. We also agreed not to ask St. Lucas for money, as we did not want to compete with the church for much needed contributions to the General Fund.

Waiting for a family assignment, we tried to learn as much as we could about the International Institute, its services, its facility in South St. Louis, and how to help an immigrant family. In early December, we were assigned three Afghan men living in north St. Louis near Goodfellow. Looking at the neighborhood, there were concerns about safety. Additionally, we wanted to sponsor a family with children. Fortunately, that assignment was rescinded and we were given a family of five—a young man and his wife with three children ages five, three, and five months—living in south St. Louis near Grand and Utah. We met the family shortly before Christmas, December 21.

Our initial meeting took place in their home, the upper story of a four-room two family flat. Accompanying the seven were the Community Support Coordinator at the Institute (Wafa) and a case worker who spoke Pashto as well as English. The family did not speak English nor any other language except their native Afghan language Pashto. We brought food, clothing and toys. The family including the children communicated as best they could. Afterwards, one of our group transported the family for a doctor’s visit at Affinia Healthcare on South Broadway. The next day, two team members took the entire family to the House of Goods, a charity located at 5911 Southwest Avenue, to select clothing, toys and other assorted items—two carloads.

Thus began several times a week visits and attempts at communication. We were encouraged to use Google Translate and we did with varying results. Translations using this app were rough. A visit to “the doctor “was translated into English as a visit to “the hospital.” That information caused panic until we understood what really happened. Government institutions provide translators, some in person, some on the phone, some patient, some obviously too busy. We met some in the Afghan St. Louis who were friends with the father. Eventually through our St. Lucas network we found an Afghan who generously translated for us from time to time. We thought the family would be interested in the Mosque nearby on South Meramec, but that did not happen. We learned the husband has a brother that lives in Columbia, Missouri and another who lives in Indiana. We were surprised one Sunday afternoon to have a request to drive the husband to see his brother in Columbia. We had to explain that it was roughly a 120-mile drive and could not be done on the spur of the moment.

The family of course had no car and some of us routinely drove family members for doctor’s visits, for groceries, and other needs. A sewing machine was donated, picked up, repaired when it didn’t work and brought to the house. A flat screen tv with antenna and furniture were donated, along with toys and other clothing donated by church members. With the sewing machine came a cabinet refurbished by a team member. Some fabric was donated and other materials were bought. A child’s desk was donated by the Woodworkers’ Guild. The family was washing its clothing in the bath tub and drying it on the stairs and bannister. Early on as a result we visited a nearby laundromat and were surprised at how expensive it was. A washing machine and dryer were offered by church friends, then transported and installed by members of our team. At first the family did not use it much. Now, they use it more often.

Formal education began in mid-January. The oldest, now age six, was enrolled in a special school for immigrant children. She began to be picked up every day by bus in the morning and delivered at home in the latter afternoon. Things seem to be going smoothly.

Team members helped the father to get a library card at the nearby Carpenter branch. An at-home Wi-Fi connector was provided on loan by the library. A team member purchased a Chrome book for family use. There were a few hiccups with passwords, but again, problems have been resolved by team members.

Medical problems surfaced, too. Shrapnel from bombs causing head and body aches—hip and body aches from the mother’s car accident in Indiana—all need to be addressed. And with coverage provided by Medicaid—the family is often last in line, with the ability to pay always an issue. Those problems are not going away.

Good news came on the labor front. The husband got a job through Afghan friends, paying $14 an hour with a 40-hour week. Transportation through a ride- share program is costing $120 each month, reasonable, considering the job is in north St. Louis County. Still, a steady job provides steady income. Next up, learning to live and support a family of five on an income of $29,000 per year.

There is a plan in place for a donated car. However, the family needs to have a licensed driver who has insurance. The husband has a learner’s permit, and is looking forward to passing the test for a permanent license. Our team has agreed to help with insurance for six months.

So that brings us to April, 2022. Our three month commitment is over. The International Institute is reducing support and encouraging our team to do likewise. Loose ends abound, and so our team will tie things up with one or two members continuing contact and support informally.

What’s next? A break for sure. The team eventually may re-constitute itself, this time armed with a heavy dose of experience. The International Institute has other opportunities—a refugee family from Honduras? A Ukrainian family? Another Afghan family? Additional church members may want to become a part of the team. The International Institute says the optimal number of team members is between five and ten.

To sum it all up, on a scale of one to ten this experience (and I speak for myself only) has been a ten. The team working daily together, resolving differences has been amazing. We do not think alike and that’s good. We have had two women and five men and the gender diversity has been key to fulfilling our mission. We have been blessed with different skill sets, some hands-on, some more remotely. Support from church members has likewise been a key component for helping this family.

Stay tuned. There will be more to come.

Bill Biedenstein, April 8, 2022

Our Afghan Family Support Team

Donovan Larson, Paul Litzsinger, Kathy Herron, Dan Herron, Bill Brinkhorst, Bill Biedenstein, Shirley Bild

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