BY Jim Beckerman

September 27, 2021


“Welcome” is a lovely word. From the Old English “wilcuma”: a person whose coming is pleasing.

Not necessarily the English word — or sentiment — an Afghan refugee first learns on arriving in the United States.

“Teaching Our Children How to Welcome Afghan Refugees,” an event held in Paterson on Sunday, was developed to raise money to buy 1,000 computer tablets for the Afghan children whose first task, on settling in their new country, will be to learn English.

“There is now an Afghan diaspora around the world,” said Sarah Cho, co-founder of Mommies Heart to Heart, a Jersey City organization and one of several that hosted Sunday’s event.

“It’s a terrible situation to be in,” Cho said. “We want them to feel welcome, not like they’re burdening their asylum country.”

In a larger sense, the event was a welcoming committee — by Afghans, for Afghans.

An archway of balloons — red, green and black, the colors of the Afghan flag — greeted the children and adults at the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, where there were also a bouncy castle, a halal food truck and tables with writing and art materials.

Children were invited to make greeting cards and write letters to Afghan refugee children still being “processed” in South Jersey. Since most of the child-writers were little, most of the messages were brief.

“Hi. Welcome. Cheer Up,” read one card, adorned with glitter and stickers of ladybugs and lucky charms.

“I just want them to know they’re safe in this country,” said Zara Shah, 9, of Fair Lawn, who had come to write a letter. “No one is going to come for them. They shouldn’t worry. They should feel safe.”

Organizers said about 100 attended the event throughout the day.

A welcome message

Such messages, mostly from Afghan American children, will be sent to the youngest among the 9,350 Afghan refugees now at Fort Dix, in Burlington County, awaiting processing. That process may take anywhere from three weeks to six months.

It’s time that might be put to good use by learning English: hence the need for tablets.

But it’s also time to get acclimated. Time to prepare for life with new people, in a new culture. That’s a scary prospect — even for these children, who have already been through so much. Hence the welcome letters.

“These kids are on a military base, they’re confined, they’ve left what they knew,” said Madina Nabi, community organizer and co-producer of the event.

“Knowing that your own people are on the outside, there is less fear,” said Nabi, a Fair Lawn resident. “We’re trying to tell these kids they will have a good future here, not to be scared, to be hopeful.”

She knows, from experience. She was only about 6 years old when her family left Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. As a child, she saw things there that she’s never forgotten.

“I witnessed my mom and my aunt being whipped on the street, because it was prayer time, and women were not supposed to be walking on the street,” she said. As her family moved, to Pakistan, Iran and Russia, and finally to America, she remembers the feeling of being lost, of not belonging.

Now, at age 33, she can only be grateful to a country that — for all its recent turmoil and questionable behavior toward immigrants — gave her and thousands like her a new life.

“It’s a strange time to be an immigrant,” she said. “But I’m so beyond grateful to this country. The fact that I can say what I want to say, dress how I want to dress, be who I want to be, it’s all because of the freedoms of this country.”

Many of the refugees in Fort Dix — most of the 53,400 now in safe havens in the U.S. — are here as a result of what some critics would call a badly prosecuted American war and a badly botched exodus.

Apart from the American tradition of welcoming immigrants, now disputed in some quarters, many would agree that the United States bears some responsibility for the Afghans who were collateral damage.

“The U.S. has evacuated as many people as they thought they could,” said Zahra Alemi of Morris County, one of the coordinators of Sunday’s event. “But obviously, this could have been more organized. There are still even U.S. citizens that are stuck there today, that even I know of.”

Afghans helping Afghans

Where the U.S. has fallen short, she said, the Afghan community in America has stepped up.

“Teaching Our Children How to Welcome Afghan Refugees” is one of a number of fundraising events in recent months that have been held by a loose coalition of groups. Sunday’s event was also co-sponsored by GERA (Global Emergency Response and Assistance) and the outreach group Jersey Afghans.

There was also help from local law enforcement. Two German shepherds from the local K-9 unit were there to greet the children, as well as officers who, Nabi said, have been hugely helpful to the Afghan community.

“Where they come from, authority is scary,” said Passaic County Undersheriff Nart Hapatsha. “They fear authority when they come here. They’re not sure whether to approach law enforcement. We want them to know they don’t need to be afraid of us.”

The event, Cho said, had one more purpose,a teaching moment for other children, and adults also: how to be good hosts.

“I think the bottom line is to be kind,” said Cho, who co-founded Mommies Heart to Heart in 2016 with Jersey City neighbor Kausar Rasul, an Afghan refugee. Watching their two daughters, Sophie and Collette, playing together, they began to wonder how they could spread that message of welcoming and tolerance.

“We wanted to give back to the community, and we decided the best way is to teach our children is to be givers,” said Cho, a lawyer whose family is from South Korea. She, too, experienced discrimination and bullying in the United States, though she emphasizes that her experience was “completely different” from those of the asylum seekers fleeing a war-torn country. In any event, she’s hoping the next generation will be better.

“I just feel everybody should give back,” she said. “Our nonprofit is really a product of love and teaching our kids what to value in life. To be kind, to be curious. It’s not money, material things, having the next iPhone.”


Original article can be found here.