Lakeshore agencies welcome Afghan refugees with open arms

Embedded in Esther Fifelski is the conviction that Afghan refugees migrating to West Michigan deserve to be welcomed with open arms.

That’s a key reason Fifelski became an intake volunteer for the legal services and support nonprofit, Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland. It’s a role that furnishes Fifelski an opportunity to present the Lakeshore’s best traits.

“It can’t be easy to come to a place where you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the language,” says Fifelski. “I take to heart the Bible that says to take care of the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners. It’s something, for me, that’s really important in my personal and private life.”

Bethany Christian Services is working in concert with Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, which is helping a weekly average of 10 to 12 Afghan individuals and families who are seeking asylum following the U.S. armed forces withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Afghans resettled

There is a sense of urgency in helping Afghans, who are unlike other refugees flowing into the region, says Susan Kragt, branch director of refugee and immigrant services at Bethany Christian Services. She added that, since 2015, Bethany has resettled more than 300 Afghan allies and refugees, including children who fled Afghanistan without their families and translators who helped the U.S. military.

“The majority we are working with have been allowed into the United States under humanitarian parole,” says Kragt. “This decision allowed us to get people out of a very dangerous situation as quickly as possible. But, unlike other groups who come through Bethany’s resettlement program, this group does not have a clear path to legal permanency.”

Getting Afghans on the path to applying for asylum requires assessing their cases quickly, according to Kragt. That’s where Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates’ expertise comes in.

“All refugees coming to the United States require assistance getting their legal status adjusted once they arrive,” says Kragt. “With this population, the need for legal services is intensified by the precarious state of their legal status. Lighthouse was willing to coordinate intake clinics and refer cases to other groups, including pro bono attorneys.”

Strong and steady volunteer stream 

No two refugees are alike, says Iliana Ponce, outreach program coordinator for Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates.

“Everyone has a unique case,” says Ponce. “We work with other agencies in the West Michigan system.”

Ponce adds the influx of people willing to volunteer has been strong and steady.

“We’ve … actually had a huge response,” says Ponce. “We’ve seen different organizations rise up and ask how they can help. They actually are donating items like coffee and tea and snacks for the children. We have volunteers play with the children to make them feel welcome. It’s been very welcoming and positive overall.”

Community’s help crucial

There is a crucial need for volunteers to provide translation services for resettling Afghans, the majority of whom (93%) speak Darian Persian (Dari) and Pashto, regardless of their ethnic background. Other needs include volunteers and monetary donations, which can be made here:

“Translation services is something we need, and it is costly, so we rely on our community donations to take care of that,” says Ponce.

Bethany Christian Services is working on providing Afghans a cornucopia of assistance, from housing to employment, to school clothes, beds and mattresses, pots and pans, diapers, medical care, and food.

“We encourage church and community groups to contact us to learn more about sponsoring a refugee family,” says Kragt. “Refugee families who found safety in the United States need people who will walk alongside them during the first overwhelming days — and stick with them as they continue to get established. Anyone interested in helping these families can learn more by visiting”

Empathy and cultural awareness

Other commodities that cannot be in short supply are empathy and cultural awareness to ease Afghans’ qualms.

“I think that the heart of what we’re doing is representing a country that has a heart and passion for others,” says Fifelski. “But you have to have an understanding of their culture. I’m a touching person. I love to hug, and you need to understand the culture you’re working with. I’m a well-educated person but it’s easy to make a mistake. Understanding you’re working with people who have different standards and ways of dealing with gender. They may come with stereotypes of what Americans are like. They come with trauma. That’s what that training does. 

“I’m so thankful the organizations in this area have an understanding of culture. If we want our newcomers to be a part of the community, to be engaged in the community, we need to show at least a desire to understand their culture and have respect for who they are and how they wish to be treated.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.