August 2021 marked yet another crisis in Afghanistan. The country has suffered invasion, war and devastation for decades. This time, the Taliban - a nationalist movement that grew into a significant revolutionary group and political organization - returned to the country in force.
In an aggressive move to usurp the internationally backed Afghan government, Taliban forces bulldozed across the countryside, quickly reaching the country's capital of Kabul. As the insurgency swept in, Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, flew out. With him fled thousands of others. Political dissidents, employees of American companies and government agencies, human rights defenders, and vocal supporters of the American mission rushed to exit Afghanistan.
As international airlifts filled and runways closed, people fleeing Afghanistan left behind spouses, children, parents, personal wealth, professional status, and even simple things like identification and diplomas. Most fled in fear for their lives. Reports of revenge killings, brutal reintroduction of Taliban rules, gunfire in civilian neighborhoods, and looting were rampant. The Foreign Relations Council called the exodus the largest since the evacuation of Saigon.
The United States recognized a responsibility to assist and support people fleeing Afghanistan because those people had worked for the United States government or otherwise supported U.S. efforts in the country. President Joe Biden's administration ultimately approved temporary refugee status for about 76,000 people.
Operation Allies Welcome initially placed refugees at eight select U.S. military bases. Resettlement agencies then took over the effort, working to move the new arrivals into more permanent homes. The government provided limited funds for housing, which often meant refugees moved into motels.
Maryland received over 2,000 refugees who were placed throughout the state. Two-hundred refugees, including 40 families, were placed in two Anne Arundel County hotels.
The government's financial commitments to the refugees ended 90 days after entry to the United States. After that time, the refugees became responsible for supporting themselves and their families. Many struggled to find housing they could afford, jobs, entry to the school system, and access to health care. As the government reduced its initial support, nonprofit organizations stepped up. Giving Back, Linda's Legacy identified the immediate needs of the refugees and set up a network of assistance.
Dawn Major heard about the influx of refugees at a presentation by Jeanette Sudano of Giving Back, Linda's Legacy. She felt moved to help.
“The presentation was extraordinary and incredibly inspiring,” Major said. “It showed how desperate the situation was. You couldn't walk out of it without saying, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Linda's Legacy assistance relies in part on creating circles of giving and sponsorship. Friends, neighbors, coworkers, congregants of churches, and other groups of people join to sponsor an individual or family in a multitude of ways. Major's family built a sponsorship circle by reaching out to their friends for time, treasure and prayers.
Fifty welcome boxes were assembled and distributed. The family's church, St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church in Severna Park, gathered household items, furniture, personal hygiene products and money for the refugees.
Kathy Berge is another member of the St. Martins-in-the-Field Episcopal Church community. When she heard about the Afghan refugee crisis, she first contacted Global Relief, an international organization. Ultimately, Berge visited several refugee families located in Prince George's County. What she found was astonishing.
“I met a pregnant woman who was bleeding and needed immediate medical attention; children who needed major dental care but had no insurance; families who were living in an unfurnished attic apartment with no air conditioning because it was all they could find or afford,” Berge said.
Both women have spent hours and days connecting refugees to medical care, English language lessons, immigration assistance, schools, and professionals in the community who are willing to help for free. Unfortunately, many Afghan refugees, even those with advanced education and professional titles, have struggled to find jobs in America. Many find entry-level positions that barely pay the rent and don't include insurance benefits.
“You make a commitment to the families, and in doing so, I’ve met some fabulous people. Dr. Bronstein is a dentist in Prince George’s County. He’s a wonderful man who has dedicated his whole life to serving refugees and poor people. He helped a young Afghan girl with major dental problems for free, then told me to bring in her sister too.” Kathy Berge
Helping the Afghan families in Anne Arundel County has been a transformational experience for both Major and Berge.
“It is emotional and inspirational to watch people who lost everything, who have led successful, productive, and happy lives but left behind homes, families, and jobs without flinching to protect their children and offer them a better life," Major said.
Berge said, “It is a joy and privilege to help in any way possible.”
To see pregnant women with no medical care, the struggle of learning a new language, or even just women learning how to read and write, to watch the appreciation for all the freedoms Americans enjoy in the United States, is truly humbling.
The need to assist local Afghan families continues. According to Berge, that help doesn't have to be time-consuming or expensive. For example, two young girls were enamored with the idea of petting horses. Under Taliban rules, girls are not allowed to touch the animals. Berge is setting up the sisters with a visit to a local farm.
“It only takes a couple of hours out of your whole year, and you've provided someone with joy," she said.
Consider volunteering to help teach English and language skills. Many classes are full, yet the refugees are desperate to learn how to speak. Anyone who wants to help can make phone calls to doctors, teachers, and other specialists on behalf of families or help fill out paperwork. An overriding issue is finding jobs. Berge calls on business owners and leaders to simply take a chance. Many refugees are well educated and willing to work hard for their families.
“If you are a business owner, even if [the refugee] doesn't speak the language, you could make accommodations for that," she said.
For those who can't donate time or treasure, consider donating financially through a church or Giving Back, Linda's Legacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The donation may be tax-deductible.
“We help because it is what Jesus calls us to do,” said the Rev. Nathan Erdman, associate rector and chaplain at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field. “So much of Jesus’ teaching and ministry was about serving those in need. We are so blessed to have a vibrant outreach and service team at St. Martin’s. Our members have such a heart for service. I am so grateful that our wonderful team saw this need in our community and responded with compassion.”