In August 2021, as the Taliban descended on Kabul, Afghanistan, members of Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia decided to take action.
After researching ways to help individuals fleeing the country, parishioners decided to co-sponsor an Afghan refugee family – three young men and their mother – among the more than 76,000 Afghans who since last year have resettled in the U.S.
Christ Church’s Refugee Ministry, which supports the family, has been a collaborative endeavor, working with St. John’s Episcopal Church, Patapsco Friends Quaker community and the Columbia Jewish Congregation. Together, the congregations have helped the family, which arrived in Howard County in late 2021, to secure an Ellicott City townhouse and car and to pay for food and utilities as they find jobs and continue their education.
“People have formed incredibly deep bonds with this family,” said the Rev. Denise Schiavone, a deacon at Christ Church who spearheaded the Refugee Ministry. “I would say we have 80 people that are involved in some way, shape or form in supporting this family as they transition to self-sufficiency here. It’s been a joy to see.”
On Sunday evening, the congregations involved with the Refugee Ministry, along with Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque and Hindu American Seva Communities, sponsored “United We Pray,” an interfaith prayer vigil to show support for all those uprooted from their homes around the world due to persecution and violence.
Dozens of worships filled the pews of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City and listened to a variety of prayers, readings and reflections from across traditions. While languages spoken from the pulpit varied, the message remained constant: Howard County’s interfaith community must welcome refugees with open arms.
“If some of you in this room tonight are new to this community, are here because you are protecting yourself or your family, tonight we are here to bear witness to you,” said Rabbi Michael Hess Webber of Columbia Jewish Congregation. “I want to express gratitude on behalf of all of us that you have landed here because your presence strengthens us and helps us build toward a more righteous and beautiful future in this world.”
Continuous needs assessments
Another group represented at Sunday’s service was the Luminus Network for New Americans, a Columbia-based nonprofit providing legal, social and language services to refugees and immigrants in the area. Founded in 1981, the organization now serves immigrants from more than 90 countries, including Afghanistan.
“I believe that the most important role we play is the relationships that we forge and the commitment that our volunteers make when they decide to get involved every step of the way in supporting the people that we serve,” said Luminus board president Danielle Duran Baron, herself an immigrant from Brazil, during the vigil’s opening remarks.
Since its establishment in January, Luminus’ Afghan Alliance of Maryland has assisted 138 recently arrived Afghan families throughout Maryland and helped set up welcome centers for refugees in Columbia, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City.
“We’re continuously doing needs assessments,” said Jessup resident Shakera Rahimi, 50, the alliance’s coordinator. “If a service is not [provided] directly through Luminus, we connect the family to other organizations and community churches.”
Rahimi, who translated portions of the vigil into Dari and Pashto for Afghan families in attendance, is herself an Afghan refugee who arrived in the country in 2014. Prior to that, she worked closely with the U.S. government as a physician on a range of maternal and childhood health initiatives in Kabul hospitals.
She decided to join Luminus last year after watching the chaos unfold at Kabul Airport as thousands of fellow Afghans were hastily airlifted away.
“I thought, ‘This is a time to help other Afghans,’ since I can speak English and Pashto, and I was a refugee,” Rahimi explained.
Rahimi says she was heartened by the outpouring of community support and simple acts of kindness for Afghan refugees as they found their footing in the county. Wilde Lake, Marriotts Ridge, River Hill and Howard high schools raised more than $1,000 to buy laundry supplies for families and a team of local hairstylists opened up a free hair salon at Columbia’s Afghan Welcome Center.
“We will be open tomorrow and the next day and the next day, working to support so many new Americans thanks to the help of faith communities like this one,” Baron told those gathered at St. John’s.
‘Everyone was a stranger once upon a time’
Faith leaders at Sunday’s vigil said that it’s not enough to simply help refugees; they must also be loved as neighbors.
“It’s one thing for us to interact with one another at a very formal and superficial level,” said Imam Aamir Sheikh of Dar Al-Taqwa Mosque. “It’s another thing when people we don’t even know that are refugees, who came from a different place, they speak a different language, they come from a different culture, they don’t look the same as us, but we love that.”
Hearing from multiple religions and cultures in one service reminded Ellicott City residents and CJC congregants Stacey and Ivan Freedman of the strength that Howard County’s diversity generates.
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“One of the attractions of Howard County is because it’s a welcoming place and very diverse,” said Ivan Freedman, 55. “That’s one of the reasons we moved here.”
Stacey Freedman agreed and added she was glad to see the faith community united in a common goal of welcoming new residents from all backgrounds.
“It’s just really important that people stand up and make others take notice that this is something that needs to be done,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a hard thing to think about, that it’s important that we welcome others because everyone was a stranger once upon a time.”
With so many refugee crises unfolding simultaneously, from Latin America to Ukraine, Schiavone hopes residents don’t forget the plight of Afghans and the fact that many refugees, including Christ Church’s family, still have loved ones in hiding overseas.
“There are still people over there, there are still people left behind, the Afghan Adjustment Act has not been passed yet,” Schiavone said. “People forget because it’s not right there in front of them.”
Still, the work of the Refugee Ministry, Afghan Alliance and others has shown the positive impact different faith communities can have when they come together, according to the Rev. Emmanuel “Manny” Mercer, Christ Church’s rector.
“We can love people that we have never even met,” Mercer said. “This [vigil] is an example of how love among friends can change the lives of other people.”