Local organizations prepare to assist Afghan refugees

By Chase Downey, contributor

The Harrisonburg office of Church World Service helps with refugee resettlement. (File Photo)

Harrisonburg will begin seeing Afghan refugees being resettled into the community in the coming weeks, nearly two months after evacuations ended in Afghanistan. 

“The latest estimates we have are that 75,000 Afghans will be resettled in the next six months,” said Emily Bender, Church World Service’s Harrisonburg Development and Communications Coordinator. “In Harrisonburg, we may see around 100 Afghan refugees through CWS. It is a fluid situation. We don’t have a solid timeline, and they won’t be all coming at once.”

In an interview in late September, Bender said refugees could be expected to begin arriving, “in the next month or so.” 

Officials from Church World Service didn’t return several messages from The Citizen over the last week seeking additional updates and comments. 

Church World Service is one of only nine national resettlement agencies that have cooperative agreements with the U.S. State Department to provide reception and placement services to incoming refugees and is the sole resettlement agency in the Shenandoah Valley. The next closest is the International Rescue Committee of Charlottesville, more than 50 miles away. 

Bender said refugees are first arriving at military bases for processing or temporarily in other nations while undergoing security checks, health checks and other normal processing procedures. 

The benefits refugees will receive vary depending on which refugee program they are eligible for, Bender said, but the general resettlement services Church World Service provides include “housing, seasonal clothing, furnished homes, cultural orientation, medical, English classes, job training [and] helping children get registered in schools.” 

“As they arrive, we will be partnering with different organizations to help provide transitional housing, and we will be providing initial resettlement services like cultural orientation, help with health screenings and appointments,” Bender said. 

One of the local organizations Church World Service works with is Skyline Literacy, whose mission is to  provide basic literacy to individuals within the community.

“We have a focus with reading, writing and math for those that want to improve reading or writing skills,” said Nelly Moreno Shenk, Skyline’s executive director. “We also provide English for speakers of other languages, English classes and [American] citizenship instructions.”

Skyline Literacy uses a network of trained volunteers to provide classes, training between 90 to 100 volunteers per year. Tutors don’t need a background in education. But Shenk said more than 50% of Skyline Literacy’s current tutors have a teaching background. The organization has between 40 and 45 active volunteers. But, like many organizations, its roster of volunteers has shrunk since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“We need, definitely first, volunteers for tutors and teachers,” Shenk said. “It has been more difficult this time to get help from the local colleges.”

Shenk said volunteers can take teaching roles or work to raise funds or perform administrative duties. 

“Volunteers are the backbone of the organization,” Shenk said. “We couldn’t deliver all these great services to the community without volunteers.”

The pandemic also pushed all of Skyline Literacy’s classes to online, something Shenk recognizes will have to change as Afghan refugees begin enrolling for classes.  

“Right now, we are going back to in person classes in the morning specifically to serve those new arrivals,” Shenk said. And classes, she said, require “more work, more training, [and] more volunteers.” 

Skyline Literacy has found help from surrounding church organizations, such as the Church of Nazarene off of Port Republic Road.

“As part of our local mission to transform lives and bring hope to others through Christ, we are providing facilities for classes, connections with congregations, and dinner every time there is a class for students,” said Felicidad Martínez, Church of Nazarene’s campus administrator. “The idea is to transform lives in a way that they can become independent.”

Martínez explained that the Church of Nazarene recognized the ability that it had to help with community outreach and chose to support other, already existing nonprofits rather than undercutting them. 

“Instead of copying what everyone does, we came behind and supported others, as a backbone,” Martínez said.

Their partnership with Skyline Literacy began in June, during the annual “Best Week Ever” event, during which members of the congregation serve the larger community for an entire week.

Through their partnership, the Church of Nazarene provides Skyline literacy with classrooms that have computers, sound, and screens, Martínez said. With classes typically taking place in the evenings, the Church of Nazarene provides food for the students as well. 

“We noticed lots of these students were coming straight from work, and you cannot learn on an empty stomach,” Martínez said. 

Additionally, some members of the congregation have begun to volunteer for teaching positions with Skyline Literacy. 

And the church, Martínez said, is preparing to serve as many as 200-300 families. 
“I believe once the door is open for them to come here, we will be one of the first ones that the families will reach out to because of the quality of service that we have,” Martínez said. “I believe we are ready to serve our new neighbors from anywhere they come from.”

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