Local charities need help serving Afghan refugees

The daily temperature starts in the 70s and climbs. 

The UV index fluctuates between10.5–11. Sunburn and sweat beads are a natural occurrence.  That’s where the similarities end between May in Kabul and May in Tampa. For more than 350 refugees resettled here from Afghanistan, acclimation centers around culture, not weather. They are learning the basics like grocery shopping at the “super” center, riding a HART bus, job training, getting a library card or a bus pass, and learning English.

“These last few months we’ve been doing health screenings, registering kids in school, helping people get ESOL classes,” explains Sylvia Acevedo, the senior director of Refugee & Employment Services at Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.  

The non-profit says it still needs more volunteers, especially women, to serve as English tutors for these families. 

“Many of the Afghan women won’t go to school outside the home, especially if they are closely observing customs and practices,” says Acevedo. “This creates opportunities for the community to serve as tutors.” 

Gulf Coast JFCS, alone, has helped some 200 Afghan men, women and children. At Lutheran Family Services of Florida, the staff has been working with New Life Warehouse to help another 150 Afghan refugees. 

 New Life Warehouse volunteers Barbara Dawes and Stephanie Haile are up to at least 40 families. 

“We furnish everything from the couch to the can opener,” explains Haile. “When they walk in the door, it’s totally livable. There are pillows and sheets on the bed, and there’s food in the pantry.” 

Volunteers are a crucial part of the help the organization provides to the refugees.

“We collect items and store them in the warehouse and volunteers help us assemble all the beds,” says Dawes. “Beds and mattresses are always in high demand, with many of the family units comprised of multiple generations.” 

Another must-have item is a teapot

“We need a lot of teapots,” says Haile with a warm smile. “Families also like the big cooking pots because they use them to cook a lot of the foods they made in Afghanistan.”  

The team of volunteers at New Life Warehouse could use more donations of coffee tables, area rugs and pizza stones for baking.  Many families repurpose the lower tables and area rugs for dining rooms and use the pizza stones for baking their bread - traditional Naan-e afghani, also known as “Noni” flatbread. 

Local charities are careful not to share information on individual refugees or families. Even volunteers don’t always get to meet the refugees. There are privacy and safety concerns to consider with these survivors of last summer’s dramatic evacuations. One hundred and twenty thousand people were evacuated under threat by Taliban forces, which regained control of that nation’s capital in August. These hurried airlifts included U.S. troops, embassy personnel and Afghan allies. 

“When we show up to an apartment or house, we usually are not able to meet the family that’s going to live there, but when we make the deliveries sometimes other Afghan families are nearby,” explains Haile. “They walk over and thank us for the help.” 

One day a warehouse volunteer was approached by a refugee and asked to walk over for tea. She graciously accepted the invitation and says the visit was unforgettable. 

“Her eyes were opened to how tough it was for them to leave Afghanistan,” explains Haile. “She was deeply moved by the family. One of the ladies had come without her husband. He had been beheaded by the Taliban.” 

The resettlement of Afghan refugees has not been without challenges. The triggering event televised around the world happened August 15–31, but the arrivals in Tampa Bay didn’t happen until the fall, when immigration and medical processing at military sites was completed. 

“Many people reached out to us wanting to help,” recalls Acevedo, “but Afghan refugees hadn’t arrived in our communities at that point.”

By Thanksgiving and Christmas, several hundred families were here but offers to help were down to a trickle. 

“When we needed help the most, that’s when we had the least amount of people reaching out,” says Acevedo. 

Marc Corradino heard Acevedo’s plight and jumped into action. Corradino, the missions director at South Tampa Fellowship, organized a food pantry at the church where convoys from Gulf Coast JFCS picked up food supplies, plus more than 100 Thanksgiving meals with all the trimmings. 

“It was a privilege,” says Corradino, who worked closely with Gulf Coast JFCS to provide “culturally appropriate” Thanksgiving meals for all the Afghan families. “We wanted them to know that they are welcome here. To know that God has a plan to give them a hope and a future and to prosper them through these small acts of kindness.”

In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, local charities started hearing from the community again. Local groups turned many of those calls into help for Afghan refugees already here and promised future opportunities to help Ukraine refugees in upcoming months, once they arrived. Lesson learned. 

“Thank goodness, in a short amount of time we were able to get everyone a roof over their head,” says Acevedo at Gulf Coast JFCS. 

Months into the resettlements, charities say housing is still one of their biggest needs. They say the community can help by making financial contributions to help cover the rent of these families or by offering housing assistance.   

”The cost of living in Tampa is very high. We don’t have a special housing unit we can place folks in. Our program faces the same housing prices that you and I do,” explains Acevedo. “So the community could really help us close the gap between what families are earning and the high cost of rent.” 
 
Volunteers at New Life Charity sum it up best when they say: “We want them to feel loved. We are not expecting anything from them in return and we’re going to help them anyway.” 
 
While the exact number of Afghan refugees in our midst is unclear, State Department statistics show Florida received approximately 2,083 refugees initially airlifted from Kabul. Texas received the most number of refugees, resettling close to 10,500 Afghans. 

For more information on how you can help Afghan refugees, contact Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services Refugee Assistance Fund, Lutheran Services of Florida Refugee and Immigrant Services, New Life Warehouse and South Tampa Fellowship Missions Ministry.









 

 

Read more articles by Lissette Campos.

Lissette Campos is a freelance writer and communications strategist living in Tampa. Lissette spent more than 11 years as the host of Positively Tampa Bay for WFTS TV ABC Action News where she showcased thousands of local community programs and service projects. She loves history and café con leche -- which frequently land her in Ybor City. She also serves as a board member of the Ybor City Museum Society, which oversees the Tampa Baseball Museum, The Spring of Tampa Bay Domestic Violence Center, and the WEDU Community Advisory Board.