By Lee Chottiner
Jewish Louisville is taking an active role in settling and acclimating new arrivals from Afghanistan as the city prepares to accept hundreds of people recently evacuated from the war-ravaged country.
The Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), a local non-profit organization that provides resettlement services to refugees through faith- and agency-based co-sponsorships, just announced it will settle as many as 200 individual Afghans in the Derby City. The first of them, a man, arrived Saturday night.
KRM is affiliated with the U.S. State Department and Church World Services.
It’s not yet clear how many family units the new arrivals will constitute or where in the country they are now. What is clear is that Jewish Louisville is playing a major role in their resettlement.
Four synagogues – Temple Shalom, Keneseth Israel, The Temple, Adath Jeshurun – have volunteered to sponsor Afghan families, while all Jewish agencies are stepping up, collecting, or providing food, and other necessities the new arrivals will need.
The Jewish Federation of Louisville is coordinating the effort.
“It is very heartwarming to see the energetic response from the Jewish community,” said Jeff Jamner, JCC creative consultant for arts & ideas, who is heading the effort for the Federation. A son of Holocaust survivors, he said his family understands what it means to be strangers in a strange land.
“This effort is very personal for me,” Jamner said. “My parents came to the U.S. seeking safety and a better life. They had no resources. It was agencies like the KRM that helped them get a foothold on pursuing those dreams.”
It’s not the first time the Federation has assisted newcomers to the city, according to Matt Goldberg, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is also providing assistance, including food and transportation.
“The Federation has a long and distinguished tradition of assisting refugees in need, whether Jewish or non-Jews,” Goldberg said. “It’s important that we continue this tradition for Afghan refugees who have suffered so much.”
Fleeing their country, which is now controlled by the Taliban, the Afghans coming to Louisville are classified as emergency humanitarian evacuees, according to KRM. They are eligible for Medicaid and food stamps and must apply for asylum after two years in the country.
Each family is expected to have different needs, said KRM Caseworker and Sponsorship Developer Maha Kolko. “We will make sure all these families are taken care of, especially in the first three months of their settlement.”
That’s where faith-based sponsors come in.
Synagogues, churches and mosques are being asked to commit for three months, Kolko said. During that time, Volunteers from the sponsoring houses of worship will welcome the families at Louisville International Airport, provide “rental assistance” for one to two months or up to $2,500, set up the apartments and stock the kitchens with enough groceries for up to one week.
They also are being asked to provide a welcome meal for the families on the night of their arrival.
Kolko is encouraging volunteers to interact with the families as much as they can.
“I always schedule some visitations,” she said. “Before COVID … we would go to the family’s house; we would be inside. Now, it’s also possible to have outdoor visits because of COVID.”
She said each of the new arrivals is at least partially vaccinated.
The synagogues are already lining up volunteers and collecting necessities for the families. Rabbis included appeals for volunteers and donations in their High Holy Day sermons. Some have already collected money and items for the cause.
Some synagogues are even making their own collaborations. For instance, Rabbi Ben Freed, of Keneseth Israel, said his synagogues’ sponsorship is a joint effort with KIP, the pre-school housed at the synagogue.
“We’re doing it together,” he said.
As for the families’ other needs. Jewish agencies are stepping up.
The Federation is collecting clothing and kitchenware for the Afghans on Thursday Oct. 14, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 7:30 p.m., then again on Thursday, Nov. 4, from 1:30-3:30 and 6-8 p.m. at the “Sports Door” of the old Anshei Sfard building.
The Jewish Family & Career Services (JFCS) is offering food and personal care items from the Sonny & Janet Myer Food Pantry, case management and mental health counseling.
“We will continue to work closely with our community partners and expand possibilities for these individuals in the coming years,” JFCS spokeswoman Kristi Quinn said in a statement.
The National Council of Jewish Women, Louisville Section, will welcome KRM at the Nearly New Shop on Oct. 13 to take away necessities for the families.
“We are willing to give everything on the floor for the Afghan project,” said NCJW-Louisville President Joyce Bridge.
And KRM is scheduling furniture pickups at households with donations to make. Appointments can be made on the KRM website. The furniture will be stored in a warehouse until apartments are ready to be set up.
While KRM has interpreters for the Pashtun- and Dari-speaking Afghans, members of the local Afghan community are offering their services, Kolko said.
And some Jewish Louisvillians who are trained therapists have signaled their willingness to help the Afghans cope with the trauma they likely have from fleeing a war-ravaged country and settling in a strange, new one .
Rabbi Freed said helping the stranger is central to Jewish teachings. “Many people think ‘love your neighbor’ is amongst the most important commandments,” he said, “but the Bible only tells us to do that once. It tells us to love the stranger 37 times.”
And while the newcomers are from a Muslim country, Kolko, herself a Syria-born Muslim, said that won’t complicate relations with Jewish volunteers.
“When you give love, you receive love,” she said. “These families, they just want to be here. They are not happy where they are now.”
But she added, “This is a great opportunity for us to come together and help these families regardless of the question of religion. I think all religions advocate for peace.”