Adam Raskin, a rabbi at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Md., knew how difficult the situation was for Afghan refugees in the Washington region.
Since the historic airlift out of Kabul last year, more than 3,700 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in the District, Maryland and Virginia, overwhelming social service agencies and leaving some refugee families waiting for housing and in limbo.
Raskin and his congregants decided to help by sponsoring a refugee family.
“We thought it was very much in line with our values,” Raskin said. “For Jews, many of whom were refugees from places of persecution, there is a special sensitivity for this issue.”
As members of the congregation began researching the resettlement process, they quickly learned how complicated it can be, and how many resources are required.
“We could do this on our own,” Raskin recalled thinking to himself, “but wouldn’t it be amazing to collaborate with a Christian and Muslim congregation?”
His idea was to “demonstrate to the family what kind of country they’ve relocated to.”
“This is a country where religions don’t have to be at odds with each other, but actually where religious communities collaborate and find common ground,” Raskin said.
He reached out to St. Francis Episcopal Church and the Islamic Community Center of Potomac to gauge their interest in an interfaith initiative, and both congregations were enthusiastically on board.
“We definitely wanted to get involved,” said Sultan Chowdhury, who was one of the founding members of the Islamic center, and currently serves as its trustee. “God gave us an opportunity to truly learn about each other. It is wonderful to see how close we are.”
Kathy Herrmann, the parish life coordinator at St. Francis, agreed.
“I have felt such a kinship with them and such a warmth and love emanating from the other two,” she said. “We all have the same goal to help this family become acclimated and feel the love that we have for them.”
The three houses of worship have collectively sponsored the Wahdats — an Afghan refugee family that resettled in College Park, Md., at the beginning of the year.
The Wahdat family — a 36-year-old father, a 30-year-old mother and their 19-month-old daughter — was not able to participate in an interview with The Washington Post because of a language barrier. Before arriving in Maryland, the Wahdats, who speak Pashto, were at Fort Dix, a U.S. Army post near Trenton, N.J.
The congregations have recruited volunteers to collaborate, including Stew Remer, who has been a member of Congregation Har Shalom since 1982 and has spearheaded the effort.
“We created an informal partnership where we are working together to provide support for the family,” Remer said. “It’s amazing that we’re doing this with other organizations.”
He started by contacting various resettlement agencies to learn more about how to sponsor an Afghan family. He got in touch with the Immigration and Refugee Outreach Center, which connected him with the Wahdats.
For the past month, the congregations have divvied up responsibilities to support the newcomers. The church has taken on a health-care advocacy role, identifying doctors and dentists willing to provide pro bono services for the family. The mosque, meanwhile, has been helping with translation services and assisting with cultural needs, such as providing traditional Afghan clothing. The synagogue has been organizing transportation, legal and financial support, as well as helping the family to apply for food stamps and Medicaid.
“Everybody is putting their heads together and strategizing and discussing what contacts and leads they have,” Raskin said. “It has been an outpouring of effort and generosity from all three congregations.”
The family is awaiting work authorization and Social Security cards, Remer said. Next steps will include helping the Wahdats enroll in English classes, find job opportunities and eventually register their daughter for school.
While each house of worship has taken on separate duties, they have all fundraised within their respective communities, collecting hundreds of dollars’ worth of gift cards for the family. The congregations have scheduled regular meetings to discuss how the Wahdats are adapting and to determine what other supports are needed along the way. They are also planning to start a card-making project for children and teenagers from the three faith groups to write welcome letters to Afghan families.
Remer, who has visited the Wahdats in their one-bedroom apartment several times, said they have been deeply touched by the interfaith effort as they transition to their new life in America.
“Each and every time we brought something to their apartment to help furnish it, or donated clothing to them or clothes for their daughter, or took them shopping with gift cards we provided, the father was very thankful to us,” Remer said. “I recall him placing his hand over his heart and nodding.”
The Wahdats are just three of the more than 124,000 civilians who were evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August. As of late December, 25,000 Afghan refugees were still living in American military installations.
Sasha Chanoff, chief executive and founder of the nonprofit organization RefugePoint, said there is critical need for more support as resettlement agencies are struggling to manage the influx of Afghans.
People are stepping up to fill the void, in part through an effort the State Department launched in October called the Sponsor Circle Program, which recruits families and other volunteers willing to help Afghan refugees secure homes, jobs and other support.
The volunteer sponsor circles serve as a “primary anchor” in the lives of Afghan families, said Chanoff, who is a lead partner in the program. Although the three religious congregations are not technically a sponsor circle, their efforts are similar.
“It’s so cool to hear that a mosque, a church and a synagogue are coming together to do this,” Chanoff said. “This kind of engagement can help to soften America’s very polarized stance on immigration and around refugees in some way.”
Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all considered Abrahamic religions that view Abraham, a prophet, as the patriarch of their faith. The Bible highlights Abraham’s hospitality and his willingness to welcome strangers.
“That is perhaps the original bond between Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” Raskin said. “We are kind of living out that legacy by collaborating in this way. I think the fact that we’re doing this together is a beautiful example of what the best of this country can be.”
“We have enjoyed the privilege of being together, trying to understand each other better and propagate peace,” Chowdhury said. “It’s eye opening for all of us, and it’s a blessing.”
“This isn’t a short-term project. We are in it for the long haul,” said Herrmann, adding that the congregations plan to continue interfaith collaborations.
“I have felt that we are not even different communities,” she said. “We are all one.”