By Molly Cornish
In late August, the world watched a crisis unfold at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan. News crews and cell phones captured footage of families fleeing for their lives, many with children and infants in tow, many forced to leave their families behind.
Afghan evacuees fled their homes, most at a moment’s notice, for the safety of themselves and loved ones. Many of the evacuees worked for the U.S. government in some capacity while in Afghanistan. Others held jobs that put them and their family in danger, such as reporters or public officials.
These heartbreaking scenes encouraged us to pray for Afghanistan and its people, and reminded us of what it meant to welcome the stranger in their time of need.
Around this same time, Catholic Social Services (CSS) Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) agreed to welcome 100 Afghan evacuees with the support of partners, government agencies, and the generous community. The entire team at CSS quickly prepared. Issa Spatrisano, RAIS director, was grateful for her team, which has worked tirelessly since then. “People work at RAIS because they are called to do this work by their heart. Knowing that in a small way we were going to be able to ensure the safety and security of some of these Afghans felt like a way to continue to shine the light of welcome Alaska has always been,” she said.
Since August, over 100,000 people have been evacuated to the United States. So far, 75 of those people are already in Anchorage. Among these 75 people are nine families who made the long journey to Alaska with their children.
Some of the children are only a few weeks old. One of our new neighbors birthed a healthy baby at the military base prior to coming to Anchorage.
The journey to Anchorage is a long and complex process. Families first arrive at a military base in the Lower 48, where they are screened by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and must complete medical exams, vaccinations, and lengthy paperwork.
Liz Chase, program manager at RAIS, worked at one of these military bases. She says it was a rewarding but heart-wrenching experience:
“Usually by the time refugees come to us they’ve put some distance to all the trauma they’ve experienced of fleeing their country, and for some, all they’ve ever known was the refugee camp. These new arrivals (Afghan Evacuees) are very different. It had only been a few days for them, and a lot of them had to leave spouses and children behind,” Chase said. “Some were able to make it out by the time the last plane left but not everyone did. We all would hug and cry together as the news would come in, either through the media, phone calls, or texts from the family members.”
But there were tender moments too.
“I loved working with the children and teens. I enjoyed making up games to keep them entertained. We played volleyball and ping pong and did lots of drawing,” she said.
When they’ve finished screening at a military base, Afghan arrivals board a plane, destined for their new home. The first to resettle in Alaska reached Anchorage in early October. When each person lands at the airport, a RAIS staff member is there to greet them. If an interpreter is needed, there’s always one there.
Most arrivals have only one piece of luggage, and some, not even that. But when the families get to their new home, the apartment is already set up, fully furnished, and ready for them to settle in.
Katie Gordon, community engagement coordinator at CSS, arranges preparations for our new neighbors before they arrive. She organizes volunteers, parishes, and community partners to move furniture into apartments, gather donations, and facilitate meals.
The day before a move-in, Katie gathers volunteers to collect all the donated items and furnish the apartment, so it is completely set up when the family arrives. Walking into one of these apartments, it’s obvious how much care has gone into this operation —perfectly tucked sheets, fluffed pillows, silverware, toys for each child, shower curtains, a full refrigerator, and more.
Katie says preparing for move-ins is always a flurry of activity. But with help from our volunteers and supporters, a once bare and empty apartment becomes a welcoming home. The moment when the volunteers have gone and Katie is left to do final check, is always special, she says: “When everyone leaves is my favorite part. Looking at all the things … these apartments have more stuff than they have ever had before. The love that goes into the setup of the apartments is amazing. One volunteer always tucks the sheets and folds them with such care. Another makes sure there are teddy bears for each kid.”
An evacuee’s journey doesn’t stop the day they move in. In fact, this is just the beginning of their new life in the United States. The days after move-in are just as busy. RAIS staff check on them the next day, and our new neighbors start their full intake process at St. Anthony’s Welcome Center. There, they work with the RAIS team to build their resumes, work with Fresh International Gardens (FIG) if they choose, receive bus training, and cultural orientation.
Even when all this is finished, our new neighbors have a long road ahead of them as they heal from past trauma, learn English, find work, and adjust to a brand-new way of life.
Despite this challenging journey, our community continues to welcome the stranger, and embrace them with empathy, compassion, and a listening ear. Issa Spatrisano emphasizes this: “Our new arrivals need kindness. They need our help creating a welcoming community for not just Afghans, but all refugees and immigrants (which) means better opportunities for clients and our community. We are so grateful for the welcoming spirit and kindness that can always be found here in Anchorage.”
To learn more, visit www.cssalaska.org/afghanrelief/.
Editor’s note: The writer is the community engagement director at Catholic Social Services.