Local groups, volunteers collaborate to provide services, comfort to refugees from Afghanistan

PITTSBURGH — Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have received resettlement services and other assistance, thanks to the kindness and care of local organizations and volunteers.

“Resettlement is a very huge task,” said Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of Refugee & Immigrant Services for Jewish Family and Community Services, or JFCS. “At the beginning, we are focusing on the most urgent needs: what families need as soon as they arrive. But our services don’t stop there.”

Between October 2021 through February of this year, the nonprofit organization has resettled 240 people from Afghanistan. Some refugees arrived with only the clothes on their back, forced to quickly flee when the United States withdrew troops from the nation, causing the Taliban to quickly regain control.

“Suddenly, overnight, everything was changed,” said Misaq Mohammadi, among the refugees assisted by JFCS.

Mohammadi, a former journalist, had been working for the president of Afghanistan at the time of the collapse. With the help of the United States government, he and his family safely arrived in the U.S. in September.

“It was the first time I was experiencing being homeless.”

After spending a couple of months at a camp in Virginia, he and his family ultimately landed in Pittsburgh, in the care of the JFCS.

“The resettlement agency, they really did a great job. And the services provided to the families ... was really helpful. It was like you got somebody to host you,” Mohammadi said.

“We cannot do this work alone,” Smith-Tapia said.

JFCS partnered with the Jewish Community Center and its Center for Loving Kindness. The center’s volunteers, called “UPstanders,” quickly learned to make the cuisine of Afghanistan, cooking meals for the refugees to provide comfort.

“We all know what it feels like when you come home from a long trip: You want your comfort foods; you want what’s going to make you feel like you’re at home,” said UPstander Linda Simon.

The UPstanders, a group that compromised many ages, races and religions, met on three occasions to make at least 300 meals. On one occasion, the volunteers delivered the meals directly to the refugees.

“The smiles that you saw on their faces, it was so obvious that they were very touched and very happy to feel that we cared enough to make the effort,” said UPstander Lynn Zelenski.

Recipients were prioritized if considered vulnerable or without a means to cook for themselves.

Mohammadi was not among those who received the meals, but he told Channel 11 how significant and meaningful the gesture was.

“Food is at the center of the Afghan culture,” he said. “It was not only something to eat, it was a feeling of being ... welcome.”

Smith-Tapia said it has been touching to see how many people have come together to help our new neighbors.

“It wasn’t hard to recruit volunteers. It wasn’t hard to convince partners to join us in this effort. It wasn’t hard to say, ‘People are in need. They’re just arriving from Afghanistan, and they would like to have a meal ready for them to eat,’” she said.

For more information on becoming an UPstander, visit: https://jccpgh.org/upstander/

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