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Jewish team helps settle Muslim refugees

Afghan family served hosts a welcome dinner. Photo courtesy of Dale Severance


By Marijke Fakasiieiki

The Spokane Jewish Community (SJC), which includes members of Temple Beth Shalom, Congregation Emanu-El and those with ties to Judaism, responded to news about Afghan refugees with a desire to help.

Many identified with the plight of these refugees because their parents or grandparents were refugees or immigrants.

They are also motivated because of the Torah's call to welcome the stranger.

Members of Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Emanu-El hold services and often holiday celebrations under the same roof.

The Jewish community acknowledges their responsibility of Tikkun Olam, "repairing or helping the earth."

They practice that in many ways, including through environmental projects, with food distribution at Second Harvest Food Bank and in other outreach.

Initially trained by World Relief, the group contacted Refugee and Immigrant Connections Spokane (RICS) in late winter 2021. That agency accommodated their desire to help Afghan families.

RICS trained and assigned SJC volunteers to three families, one in Spokane Valley and two in Spokane. In addition to working on the teams, some volunteers help independently.

The SJC connects the refugees with agencies like the Martin Luther King Jr. Food Pantry, CHAS Clinic, Second Harvest, local schools and International Rescue Committee.

"I focus on one family. It has been a rich and rewarding experience so far," said Dale Severance, a retired Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) social worker and one of the co-coordinators of the SJC Afghan Teams. "It has touched me in surprising ways."

For Afghan families, so much in the U.S. is culturally different from what they have known, she explained.

"From furniture and food to religion and gender roles, it's all so different and a huge adjustment," Dale said.

Some volunteers help families receive food boxes.

Hilary Hart has organized weekly deliveries to 30 families of culturally appropriate foods, including fruits, vegetables, rice, lentils, beans, halal meat and other products that are less accessible in Spokane.

"By bringing food every week or every other week, we build a trusted relationship. Once we have a relationship, we can help with reading their bills, so they understand how much is due and how to pay them. Banking issues and financial literacy are issues," said Hilary.

"Sometimes just visiting with women at home with the children is a blessing," she said.

"When we arrive, families are more comfortable sitting on the floor. Tables are optional. Furniture can be confusing, but gradually more furnishings have arrived," said Dale.

Transportation is another challenge. Teams help the families with transportation until they have learned how to navigate the bus system so they can shop for food and clothing, or visit a doctor or the bank.

Teams connect with families three to four times a week.

In one family with six children, the father is working, and the mother is home taking care of the younger children. Going shopping for groceries is challenging, Dale said.

Having a team of volunteers means one can stay with the children while another takes the mother to the store.

For employment, navigating the U.S. system can be trying.

In their traditional system, one parent would seek work, while the other would take care of children until they are older, Dale noted.

A single parent family must balance between children's needs and financial needs.

"During Ramadan, we worked with interpreters to explore their needs so they could practice with their community," said Dale.

"Their observance and attention to religious practices are beautiful. Families, especially adults, are devout. Teens participate in Ramadan and fasting. Faith gives them strength to deal with the challenges they are experiencing," she said.

"Afghan families always offer tea, nuts, dates and sweets, sharing with generosity and hospitality," Dale added.

One family invited SJC members to Iftar, a meal to break the fast for Ramadan, with 10 team members and family there. SJC members brought food, too.

"I prepared extra, thinking it was a lot of people for the family to feed. As it turns out, we didn't have to bring food. There was so much food for the feast. They wanted to honor us. They served lamb in pilaf, a goat dish, pastry over a filling, and yogurt dip. They laid it out on a tablecloth on the floor. We sat on the floor and ate," she said, amazed with how welcoming, appreciative and grateful they were.

For the Jewish community, during the first two nights of Passover in the spring, there were several Seder meals, so the teams were not able to visit as often during that time.

The Afghan families understood that they were preparing a big meal.

"They were curious, asking us by putting their hands together in prayer if it was a religious observance," said Dale.

For her, this Passover Seder, the themes of slavery and freedom in the Exodus story of the Israelites fleeing the oppression of Pharoah in Egypt took on new meaning.

She reflected on what freedom means and how to promote it in her personal life and in the world.

"I reflected on what it is like for the refugee families we are working with to feel freedom and what their experiences were," she said.

Now here, they struggle with language. Pashto and Dari languages are not on Google Translate, so it is hard to communicate without a translator. Translation with the Tarjimly app is also hard.

Atia, a translator and case manager with RICS, helps with important matters. If the team has issues, they call her.

As families learn more English, it becomes easier to help with their needs.

It's often hard for women to learn English, because they need to stay with the children and cannot go to ESL classes in person.

Barton School at First Presbyterian offers some Zoom classes. One mother zooms into a class to practice English while SJC volunteers watch her children. Some are now comfortable and can converse in English, and others are in classes, but not yet using it.

Dale, who is working with a teenage girl who had never been to school before coming to the U.S., gathered documents, such as vaccination records, to register her for school. The girl, who had started school before spring break, was excited about going to school. Now she is on a sports team. Dale continues teaching her English 45 minutes a day, sometimes talking while walking along the river.

"It's awesome to see the growth the kids make and listen to their English skills improve," Dale said.

"When I realized she knew the alphabet, I found a Dick and Jane book and asked if she wanted to learn to read," Dale said.

Once she read that book, Dale found 12 more Dick and Jane books. Even though the books are for young children, the teen was excited to be reading them.

"Everyone on the team has "aha" moments with the families. There is no way for the experience not to impact our lives," Dale reflected.

By October, most families had connected with attorneys to pursue legal asylum.

The team made a poster for a Jewish community picnic to share the work they have done. They were shocked to learn that there were so many participants.

Forty-nine SJC volunteers help regularly with food distribution, family teams, organizational connections and other tasks.

The regular contact with Afghan refugees has transformed Dale's faith journey.

"We have shared experiences and helped each other. None of us can go through life without the help of others," said Dale.

For information, call 747-3304, email or visit Refugee and Immigrant Connections Spokane


Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2022