Volunteer Harriet Lavin recently was driving a female Afghan refugee to a doctor’s appointment when she asked the mother of six whether she would want to learn how to drive in the future.
“Women, no drive, no school. No work, no shopping,” the Afghan woman said to Lavin. “Taliban.”
Her simple answer cast a deep light on the magnitude of what life was like for herself and her family in Afghanistan, her war-torn nation that she fled along with 72,000 other Afghans a year ago after it fell to the Taliban.
“She said it so simply with a few words that she knew, but it really gave me an idea of what she had experienced there and how circumscribe her life was,” Lavin said. “They must feel like they were dropped here from Mars or something. Wisconsin is so different.”
Lavin, a member of the Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, is part of a small team of volunteers with Congregations United to Serve Humanity, a Kenosha-based alliance of local faith-based groups, who have been helping the family resettle in the United States over the last six months. The team has helped the family with every aspect of their lives, from schooling and employment to health care and their social lives.
“It’s so mind boggling to think of all the things that they don’t know that they need to know,” said Beth Hillel Temple Rabbi Dena Feingold, who sits on the CUSH board. “Our people know what it’s like to pack up and move with nothing to a new place, in a matter of moments, and we have a special sensitivity to anyone who’s in that category. That’s why we do this work.”
The work began with the congregation raising $4,000 earlier this year for furniture, clothing and housing for the family. Early on, once the family arrived, each day brought a new hurdle. The baby had a diaper rash. A toddler locked the bathroom door from the outside and the mother needed a pair of decent shoes, said Beth Hillel Temple member Susan Remson, who is also a volunteer helping the family.
“It was responding initially to what they needed at the moment,” she said.
Eventually, as the family got into a routine, the group of volunteers broke up into teams. A team was formed to help them with their language skills and other teams were created to focus on health care and grocery shopping.
“Language was an issue of course, and I have a lot of good nonverbal skills. So that’s where we started, the beginning was somewhat chaotic,” said Susan who, for the past 12 years, has been a volunteer with the Kenosha Literacy Council. “The family didn’t speak English, although the dad understood some. In addition, they were frightened and didn’t know what to expect.”
By early April, the parents and their two youngest children were attending a Kenosha Unified School District program called Even Start where they learned English while the other four children were in school during the day. The parents are now taking adult literacy classes.
The language barrier has made it difficult for the father to pass the test for a driver’s license, which is needed to buy a car. He knows how to drive, but the reading and writing portion of the test is a challenge, Feingold said. Despite the language barrier, he just recently got a job.
Another challenge has been to get the family the food that they like to eat. The mother needed supplies to make her own bread, as the family thinks American bread is “gross,” Feingold said. The family also enjoys halal meat from an Afghani store in Chicago.
“That’s been a huge undertaking, taking them shopping there, and then realizing how much food they go through as a family of eight,” Feingold said.
The family also arrived with an array of health and dental issues. Lavin has been the health care point person for the family, helping them fill out forms and find providers. She has also made and driven them to various appointments, a task made much more complex due to the family’s religious customs that prohibit women from being alone with a man in a car or seeing a male doctor.
“The system is difficult for anybody,” the retired nurse said. “When you don’t understand how it works and you don’t speak English. It’s overwhelming.”
Lavin also applied for and was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Kraus Family Foundation, which offers mini grants to people who are working with immigrants and refugees. With the money, she purchased Pashto, Dari and English picture dictionaries.
She gave some of the books to the family and the remaining books to the Milwaukee Muslim Woman’s Coalition for the organization’s summer reading program, lending library and its “Be a Buddy” program that matches kids in the community with an Afghan refugee program for friendship.
The money was also used to get the family together with another Afghan family in Racine. Volunteers arranged a picnic in July for the two families in a local park.
“They had a wonderful afternoon … some socialization with people of their own,” Remson said. “With all of the government papers and language classes and grocery shopping and medical stuff, we try not to lose sight of these people’s need to get out of their house.”
Socialization has been a critical part of the family’s resettlement. In Afghanistan, the family lived with dozens of relatives in a family compound, where things like childcare and meals were communal. Now they are alone, and if it weren’t for the group of volunteers, on their own.
“The concept of individual housing where people don’t interact with even their neighbors is extremely foreign,” Remson said. “The lack of community and the way we live in separate houses, strikes them. Here they’re dependent on everybody. It’s hard. It’s hard, especially for the dad. It is hard to be dependent. And yet they don’t have a choice.”