March 5, 2022

Afghan and other welcome support projects in Austin

Written by Lorri Haden and Andrea Fronk
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Afghan Refugees One of the most exciting stories on the immigration front in Austin right now is the almost daily arrival of refugees from Afghanistan. Refugee Services of Texas (RST) reports that, as of January 13, 2022, it is on track to resettle 3000+ Afghan evacuees through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program.

Lorri has been volunteering for several months with Austin Jews and Partners for Refugees (AJPR), a volunteer organization of about 200 individuals and Muslim, Afghan, Christian and secular organization partners, which assists RST coordinate and carry out many of the resettlement activities for Afghan refugees. AJR has raised over $100,000 in cash and in-kind donations since August and has fed, clothed, provided household goods and technology to more than 700 Afghan refugees in Austin in 2021.

AJR is focusing on two new projects for 2022:

  • Salaam Neighbors pairs volunteer welcome teams with an Afghan family to support their resettlement in their new homes. This is a commitment of 3 months.
  • Helping New Moms and Babies will serve the many pregnant women in need of pre and post-partum care as well as furnishing their babies with all they need.

Cathy Campbell, one of the organizers of AJPR, said she is particularly proud and honored to do this work because welcoming refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, to work with U.S. troops has long been a cause for which she has advocated. She continued: “My nephews both served in Afghanistan and Iraq and one of my nephews lost his life in combat, along with an Iraqi interpreter. My family was never able to connect with the interpreter’s family and we always hoped they found refuge and safety. Helping other families refuge and safety in a new home is my way to honor my nephews’ service and sacrifice for our country.”

Rio Valley Relief Project (RVRP), a nonprofit based in Dallas, with a team in Austin, also assists RST with refugee resettlement, primarily in setting up apartments. RVRP gathers and organizes quality items from the community and from charitable entities and purchases items that cannot be collected, so that refugee families may start off their new lives in a welcoming, comfortable home as debt free as possible.

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Border Support RVRP also welcomes asylum seekers into Texas by assisting organizations that seek to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Andrea has been actively involved with RVRP and Team Brownsville and Practice Mercy. Team Brownsville provides food, water, shelter, and basic necessities to people seeking asylum in the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico and to families released by US authorities into the United States at the Brownsville Bus Station. Practice Mercy ministers to, provides for basic needs such as clothing, footwear, vitamins, toiletries, and coverage for medical expenses, and advocates for women and children along the Texas-Mexico border.

Andrea bought shoelaces in bulk for a mask-making group and then donated the extras in September 2021 to Team Brownsville and Practice Mercy, who work to replace the shoelaces and belts that ICE takes from migrants. When the groups do not have enough belts to meet the need, they sometimes tie shoelaces together to make belts.

Community Collaborations Andrea also volunteers with the Texas chapter of the group Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG). Andrea states: “We have been sharing Amazon Wishlists and needs for the different RST groups to youth and church groups interested in service projects. We connected RVRP to the Oak Hills Stake Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) through, a website that links community volunteer needs with volunteers.. RVRP had some ideas of how to help RST. This resulted in several congregations joining in a youth service event at an LDS Stake Center. They painted and covered Dollar Store canvases and wove rugs out of cut up sheets. A few other congregations locally have joined in this project, with the women’s group finishing the rugs.”

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In one local school in Dripping Springs, a mother named Melissa Orsak has started a service club with a goal to find ways to serve and welcome immigrant families. Andrea introduced Melissa to RST and Casa Marianella; the club is now working with an immigrant family and attempting to assess their service needs and has plans to send Valentine cards to the family members.

As an MWEG member, Andrea was introduced to a national Christian-based group called Women of Welcome, which has great educational discussion videos and social media friendly materials. They are starting a

virtual Tuesday night zoom of one of their study series that advocates for Biblical welcome. Andrea’s hope is that Women of Welcome can form connections with local churches or individual members that might be interested in their work.

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2020, several girl scout troops under Melissa and Andrea and their congregations gathered around 200 health kits for local TX farmworkers. The goal was to encourage appreciation, promote awareness of health risks, and to support and thank them for their work. The girl scouts provided pillowcase bags with thank you notes, masks, sanitizer, soap, snacks, covid info in Spanish and English, and a dozen pulse oximeters. The health kits were donated to a community clinic through National Center for Farmworker Health and, a local employment agency focused on ethical and legal hiring of visa workers.

Asylum Hearings The pandemic has forced people seeking asylum to wait much longer than usual for their preliminary and final asylum hearings. Asylum hearings for non-detained people that had been rescheduled from 2020 to this year are now being rescheduled for 2023 dates, because of another resurgence of COVID and the growing backlog of cases. These delays, of course, cause a number of complications regarding work authorization and access to resources and prolong the stress of having an uncertain legal status. A bright spot to the pandemic, though, may be that in-person ICE appointments have significantly decreased.

We continue to hope and advocate for more humane asylum processes and immigration policies.

“If we were to accept migration as integral to life on a dynamic planet with shifting and unevenly distributed resources, there are any number of ways we could proceed. The migration ration will continue its inexorable approach, regardless. . . We can continue to think of this as a catastrophe. Or we can reclaim our history of migration and our place in nature as migrants like the butterflies and the birds. We can turn migration from a crisis into its opposite: the solution” from THE NEXT GREAT MIGRATION by Sonia Shah.

If you would like to help support and welcome newcomers in Austin, explore the organization links to discover how you can get involved.

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