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Traumatized Afghan Refugees Receiving Help, Love From Area Agencies

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Cutline No. 1Esther Fifelski: “I do see this as God’s work.”Tourists exploring countries they've never been to take pleasure in encountering people and cultures unlike their own. But for refugees fleeing their homelands, traveling internationally is often an unsettling experience.

Such is the case for Afghans fleeing their motherland. They arrive in the United States traumatized and confused, often carrying with them all they own in a suitcase.

And now with the war between Russia and Ukraine, another wave of refugees will likely arrive in West Michigan.

With the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan, people are being forced at a record pace to flee their country. As the U.S. armed forces rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan, more than 18,000 Afghans who served alongside the United States are in grave danger and at risk of retaliatory attacks from the Taliban.

Receiving threats

"All our clients (Afghan refugees) have served the U.S. in one-way or another," says Iliana Ponce, outreach program coordinator for Holland-based Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, a legal services and support nonprofit. "They helped in the military or hospitals. That is something the Taliban does not like and so when the Taliban took over, our clients started receiving threats simply because they associated themselves with the U.S. Ultimately, their lives are being threatened, not only their individual lives but the lives of their family members. For them to seek asylum, it's very central because it's a life-or-death situation."

Which makes volunteers like Holland resident Esther Fifelski all the more vital.

Fifelski is one of several intake specialists for Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland. It's a role that furnishes Fifelski an opportunity to present the Lakeshore's best traits and enact her faith in Christ.

Feeling Christ's love

Capture75Iliana Ponce: “We are projecting that we are going to see 300 by the end of August.”"I want them to feel the opportunities that is available to them," says Fifelski, who serves as a cantor at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Douglas. "I want them to feel the love of Christ even though they might not be of the Christian tradition. I want them to sense there's something different about (me). Maybe they can't see what it is. I hope they can feel that's there something different here."

Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas are working in concert with Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, which is helping a weekly average of 15 Afghan individuals and families who are seeking asylum following the U.S. armed forces withdrawal from Afghanistan. By August, their numbers will total 300, according to Ponce.

They have a plethora of needs, says Ponce. Healthcare, English language classes, getting a driver's license, education and becoming acclimated to a new culture, to name a few.

Bethany Christian Services is providing Afghans an array of assistance, from housing, to employment, to school clothes, beds and mattresses, pots and pans, diapers, medical care and food, Samaritas is helping with housing and Lighthouse Advocates is providing legal assistance.

Things Americans take for granted

"These are things you and I take daily for granted," says Ponce. "We're doing individual asylum applications for anyone 14 and older in order to have a greater possibility for their asylum applications to be approved. And by the end of August, we are projecting that we are going to see 300 by the end of August."

And as the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage, Ponce predicts her organization will be helping Ukrainian people as well.

"We are looking at how we can help them out," she says. "It's just that it will be in a different capacity than to what we do with our Afghan refugees."

Fifelski says she wants to be a conduit to Christ's love to the immigrants.

"I want them to feel safe," says Fifelski. "I want them to feel that I am working compassionately with them I just want them to feel that someone is listening to them and is trying to help them.

"I do see this as God's work," adds Fifelski. "I hope all refugees that come to our country are accepted. I pray they will find communities that have a heart for what they're going through. They're starting out with nothing. We have people coming here with a suitcase and nothing else."
Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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