As reports filled the news that individuals from Afghanistan, including children, would be arriving imminently in the United States, youth and young adults reached out en masse to the Aga Khan Youth & Sports Board and the Ismaili Professionals Network in the United States, asking what they could do to help.
With the relationships that the Ismaili community in several cities has established with civil society nonprofits and government entities, the Jamat was able to quickly confirm partner organizations focusing on settling families coming into the U.S., and through Ismaili CIVIC and Focus Humanitarian Assistance USA (FOCUS), was able to mobilize volunteers to support a variety of efforts.
In more than a dozen cities from Richmond to Albuquerque, and Seattle to Milwaukee, volunteers coordinated supply drives at Jamatkhanas to collect household goods, school supplies, and other items that would be immediately needed by families getting settled in a new country. Items collected would not only make our new neighbors more comfortable but would also save them from having to use their limited resources to purchase them. Moreover, the fact that these items were donated by individuals from the community, would hopefully indicate to the refugees that their neighbors welcome them with open arms.
In Albuquerque, United States Senator Ben Ray Lujan joined volunteers to sort and pack donations received. In the greater Austin area, Cedar Park Mayor Corbin Van Arsdale was accompanied by three other City Council members who not only donated supplies but stayed around for hours to help unload, collect, and organize donations. Like the Mayor, the City Council members who came to help, brought their spouses and children with them. Cedar Park City Council member, Jim Penniman Morin, who served in Afghanistan and brought his children to volunteer, noted:
“Those of us who served in Afghanistan ... couldn’t help but develop a real respect and affection for people who put so much faith in our values...so my family and I were so thankful to be invited to give back just a little to our newest neighbors, and hopefully start to repay that debt we owe those allies.”
At multiple drives, hundreds of cars lined up to donate goods, with individuals of all ages from the communities where these Jamatkhanas are located participating in the drive. With such an overwhelming response - more than 160 pallets of supplies were collected across the drives - several of the organizations with whom Ismaili CIVIC and FOCUS partnered, ran out of warehouse space to store the donated supplies.
Nadia Remtulla-Chunara, a parent of two young children who participated in one of the Houston area drives commented: “What I appreciated about the drives was that it made it possible for my young children to contribute and learn about serving others and welcoming our neighbors.”
In the Dallas area, FOCUS and Ismaili CIVIC not only organized multiple supply drives, including in Carrollton, Euless, and Plano, but also connected individual volunteers with refugee placement organizations.
Tasneem Devani, Chairperson of the Aga Khan Youth & Sports for the Central United States, remarked:
“We had volunteers step forward wanting not only to do something immediately but also to support families in the long term. They did not just want to donate goods, but also give of their time and knowledge and build deeper relationships with those who were arriving and do so well into the future until those families were settled here in their new hometown. We were fortunate that the civil society organizations with whom we partnered were seeking volunteers to help new arrivals find jobs, open up bank accounts, enrol in school, and get acclimated to the culture of their new country, among myriad other activities. These opportunities to serve and contribute to the quality of life of our new neighbors were a blessing for those seeking avenues through which they could assist.”
Meanwhile, in Chicagoland, in addition to drives at Chicago Downtown, Glenview, and Naperville Jamatkhanas, Ismaili CIVIC volunteers engaged young children in creating welcome cards for others their age who would soon be arriving to their city, while older youth and adults packed welcome bags. An Ismaili CIVIC volunteer, Esmael Ghaziani, had the unique opportunity, alongside other volunteers, to greet families, including children, arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“Being at the airport to welcome such young Afghan refugees was an overwhelming experience. In their voices, you can sense hope and a positive outlook for their future but at the same time, anxiety about what comes next and worry about their loved ones who are still back in Afghanistan. The ethics of our faith inspires us to be generous towards each other; to understand the other, regardless of religion or culture; helping to lift each other up in times of uncertainty. I headed to the airport feeling that I was going to help these young people as they arrived at their new home. At the end of my time at the airport, I realized it was them who lifted me up by showing me such resilience and bravery. This was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am forever grateful for the experience and what it taught me.”
In the Houston area, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center not only hosted supply drives but also opened its doors for a partner agency to host orientation sessions for families who had arrived only a day or two earlier. While parents attended the sessions, Ismaili CIVIC volunteers organized activities and games for the young children, aiming to create a warm and welcoming environment for the children who had experienced such dramatic changes in their lives at such a young age.
In noting that Ismaili CIVIC had organized separate drives to collect supplies for survivors of the earthquake in Haiti and for families arriving from Afghanistan, on the same weekend, City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner commented: “I am a member of the Ismaili community...honorary!”