by Sherri Kimmel, leadership team member at Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren
“Nothing compares with being a refugee; you are robbed of context and you flail about, searching for self-definition.” —Peter C. Newman, journalist and refugee from Nazi Germany
This was not the parting I’d imagined. Actually, I hadn’t really envisioned a parting—yet here we were in early September, enfolded in a tight embrace, Najiba’s face pressed into my shoulder. As she clutched me tighter and sobbed loudly, I patted her back, murmuring, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” We held each other far longer than we ever had all those times over the last 18 months when we’d exchanged quick hugs as I came and went from her home.
Before long, tears were streaming down my face, too. I had to beat a quick retreat, too rattled to retrieve the yellow snow shovel propped outside the townhouse. I’d given it to her husband, Naser, last winter after our only significant snowfall. For the last two days, he’d been asking members of our Church World Service welcome team to take back items we’d donated.
Even though they were taking just the bare necessities for the cross-country move, they were leaving with more than they had when they arrived in the United States in September 2021 as refugees from a chaotic Afghanistan toting an infant, a three-year-old, and four duffle bags.
Now, on Sept. 11, 2023, they were leaving central Pennsylvania with a newborn (their third girl) in their Honda Civic that Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren and two other local congregations had helped them purchase a year earlier. Their destination: Aurora, Colo., where several family members and former neighbors from their remote mountain village in central Afghanistan had settled.
A new mission
When I learned in August 2021 about the fall of Kabul and the desperate departure of Afghans who feared the Taliban, I immediately thought of an Afghan student whose essay I’d recently featured in Bucknell Magazine, which I edited. Her academic adviser, a close friend of mine, was trying desperately to find a way out for the student’s family. I offered to do what I could, but all avenues were closed. If not her family, I wondered, were there others I could help rescue?
Then I thought about the Vietnamese refugee family my home church, Brookville (Ohio) Church of the Brethren, had sponsored 50 years earlier during the ill-fated Vietnam War. I remembered how the Truong family had thrived in our community with the support of our church family. Knowing the relationship our denomination has with Church World Service, I reached out to the CWS Lancaster (Pa.) office.
CWS was one of nine resettlement agencies the US government tapped to resettle the 76,000 Afghan allies flooding into our country. Conveniently for me, CWS decided to open a new office in nearby Harrisburg to help handle the largest influx of refugees since the Vietnam War.
I approached our church leadership about sponsoring a family, simultaneously using professional and personal contacts to enlist two other local congregations—Grantham Brethren in Christ and Mechanicsburg Presbyterian. In September 2021, our new 10-member CWS welcome team held its first meeting. We began ironing out our organizational structure and started collecting furniture, household goods, and other items for the yet-unknown refugees we would be supporting. All we needed was a family.
When the time came, we had less than a week’s notice, but we were ready for the family to arrive. All we knew was that the parents were in their mid-20s and had two small children.
This excerpt was originally featured in the January/February issue of Messenger magazine. Read this article in full online or support the publishing ministry of Messenger magazine.
(Read this issue of eBrethren.)