Local churches take up call to house Afghan refugess

Joya Breems—Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Iowa Public Radio

Mohammed Stoman Hotak fled Afghanistan after discovering his name floating around on a Taliban hit list. Taking only two suitcases for his family of five, Mohammad and his pregnant wife, Feroza, caught a flight out of the country. After landing in Texas, they faced the challenges of living in a new country.

Mohammed is one of over 76,000 Afghans who left their country for the United States, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit organization with the motto “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”

Upon entering the states, Afghan refugees are processed in military bases throughout the country. Then, smaller agencies help them find housing, jobs, and schooling. According to ABC News, the Department of Homeland Security and other resettlement organizations are “working toward a goal” of emptying the bases of refugees by Feb. 15.

Dr. Jason Lief, a theology professor at Northwestern College, works with a Sioux City resettlement agency and, through a translator, has heard the stories of Afghan refugees like Mohammed. He’s driven them to Walmart, too.

“They were told to get on a plane. They had no chance to say goodbye to their families,” Lief said.

Lief thinks Sioux County can provide “grace and welcome” to the refugees: “We can help give them the tools to be successful and to flourish.”

In Sioux Center, local churches including Covenant CRC, Good Shepherd, and Bethel CRC have taken up Lief’s call. At Covenant, a house has been made available to host refugees.

Joel Kok, the pastor of Covenant CRC, believes his church’s task is Biblical. He references how Galatians 6 says “let us do good to all people:” “We feel this call to reach out to people who have been hurt,” Kok said.  “We want our Afghan friends to experience the love of Christ as embodied by the church.”

Kok worked with immigrants at Willowdale CRC in Ontario, Canada, where he previously pastored. There, he helped refugees from Iran who sought religious freedom. 

“Those refugees were refugees because of their faith in Christ,” Kok said. “Our Afghan refugees will almost certainly be Muslims and we need to respect their faith.”

There are difficulties to Lief and Kok’s desire to help, though.

“Finding jobs won’t be hard, finding housing will be more difficult,” Kok said. “In addition, helping Afghan’s learn the language, culture, and navigate the immigration system of the U.S. is a daunting, time-consuming task.”

Lief understands a number of refugees will experience trauma related to their departure, which the church will have to attend to: “Some of them had to leave family members behind.” Lief said.

Most Afghan refugees, like Mohammed, may stay in the United States for one year with a temporary refugee status. To stay in the U.S. longer, they must obtain asylum status or apply for a visa. If not, they risk losing their jobs or being deported.

 While the immigration paperwork, with its time, language, and legal constraints, poses an initial challenge for host churches, the larger difficulty exists in the nation-wide backlog in asylum cases. Currently, over 1 million asylum requests are being processed. If Mohammed applied for asylum today, his paperwork might not be processed before his one-year temporary status expires.

A legislative solution is needed to fast track the Afghan asylum application. Lief encourages legislators, such as Iowa state senator Joni Ernst, to sponsor the Afghan Adjustment Act. The act would allow refugees to remain in the states while their paperwork is being processed and expedite the wait times for visa and asylum applications.

“Sioux County is generous and compassionate but walking alongside our immigrant friends will require time and patience.” Lief said

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