‘Strong volunteer force, welcoming community’ mark Colorado Afghan resettlement
Within days after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, two Fort Collins, Colo., congregations were ready to help any Afghans who had fled and were accepted for U.S. resettlement.
“We didn’t even know whether Fort Collins would get Afghans,” said the Rev. Alan McLarty, a member of Plymouth United Church of Christ and co-convener, along with Linda Mahan, of its Immigration Ministry Team.
Plymouth UCC and its resettlement partner, Heart of the Rockies Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), kept in touch with their local refugee resettlement affiliate, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. The two churches gathered up their nearly two dozen volunteers, mostly church members, and sent them to LIRS for the required training and background checks.
Then they waited.
Finally, on Dec. 2, Mahan got the call.
“It was 8 a.m.,” she said. “I was on my yoga mat when my cellphone rang. I usually don’t pick up while I’m practicing, but when I saw that it was our contact at Heart of the Rockies Christian Church, I answered. Almost before I could say hello, she announced, ‘We have our Afghan family.’”
“From that moment, it’s been hectic,” McLarty said. Echoed Mahan, “Every day it’s just a new thing to uncover and figure out.” “Figuring it out” has been made easier by a strong volunteer force and a welcoming community.
‘Welcoming the stranger’
Both McLarty and Mahan have long and deep experience with refugees and other migrants.
McLarty used to live in Arizona, where he served as a pastor and UCC Southwest Conference staff member. He immersed himself in Mexican culture and worked in Tucson and Phoenix with Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing war in Central America.
Mahan helped resettle a Vietnamese family and an Eritrean family “long ago” at Plymouth UCC. And she lived in India for a year, where she experienced “being the stranger in a new country. I had a cultural mentor who is my model for ‘welcoming the stranger’ today.”
Plymouth UCC’s Immigration Ministry Team formed over 10 years ago to build relationships with the immigrant community, work toward just, comprehensive immigration reform, and foster justice and equal opportunity for immigrants in the community. Action and community education increased during the time when harsh policies were enforced from 2017 to 2020 under the Trump administration. They also are active founding members of the Interfaith Solidarity and Accompaniment Coalition of Northern Colorado to protect immigrants’ legal rights.
‘Example of what is possible’
The Rev. Irene Hassan, UCC minister for refugees and migration ministries, said, the Fort Collins collaborative “goes above and beyond, to truly welcome the Kin-dom on earth. It’s an honor to walk with them on their welcoming journey.”
The Rev. Erin Gilmore, UCC Rocky Mountain Conference associate conference minister, affirmed, “This is an example of what is possible when a small group of people takes seriously the call to love their neighbor.
“I see similar commitment in the Metro Denver H.O.M.E. team of members of five UCC churches that has been helping resettle two Afghan families. All of these volunteers, in Fort Collins and in Denver, were ready to help the minute the call for help came.” (Those five — Sixth Avenue, Park Hill, Parkview, Kirk of Bonnie Brae and Parker Hilltop — coordinate their work with the International Rescue Committee.)
The Afghan couple and their four children arrived in Fort Collins on Nov. 29 and squeezed in temporarily with the mother’s sister, who’d been resettled there 10 years earlier. The sisters-in-law also live in the area.
Volunteers located a townhouse for rent. A local realtor donated a houseful of furnishings from a house she was seeking to sell. “There were linen closets full of sheets and towels, kitchen appliances, waste baskets, furniture,” Mahan said, “almost everything anyone would need. An angel in our church hired a moving van. I went up one day to unpack and clean. And then we put out a call for what was missing.”
LIRS and the Afghan mother’s sister got the three school-aged children enrolled in school. The fourth child is still a toddler. The two churches organized to drive the children to school and back for two or three weeks until they got their bus passes, Mahan said. “Now the father walks the children to the bus stop.” She added, “We already have a plan for virtual school, if needed.”
School and work
Neither the family’s children nor the parents speak much English. So the volunteer team sought out English lessons for the parents, too. With the nearest ESL program classes eight miles away, and offered during the dinner hour, it was not practical for them to go. A retired director of the Colorado State University ESL program satisfied LIRS’s requirements and is now tutoring the parents at home.
The father has construction experience, McLarty said, and several team members know foremen and construction managers and have plans to take him to job sites. A volunteer is working with him on vocabulary for tools and worksites.
“We’re also working on vocabulary related to driving,” Mahan said. “We found a Virginia drivers’ manual translated into Dari to start with.”
Local response ‘inspiring’
In the meantime, the father is working 12 to 15 hours a week washing dishes in a restaurant owned by the family, McLarty reported. “It gives him income and an outlet.”
One volunteer took the family to the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Staff there gave them free admission, a free one-year membership and a gift bag for the kids. Another asked, “Have you thought about library cards?” A friend of another volunteer’s friend offered houseplants.
A second Afghan family has now been resettled to Fort Collins, with support from LIRS and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. “They’re all wonderful,” Mahan said. “We’re swapping stories and sharing resources.”
“The response we’ve had from the community is inspiring,” she said. “Fort Collins is a community that welcomes the stranger.”
UCC Global H.O.P.E. Refugee and Migration Ministries offers workshops, networking opportunities and tailored support to congregations and Conferences interested in helping refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants. Attention is given both to ministry basics and to best practices in engaging with vulnerable populations. Grants are available to eligible church bodies that have demonstrated a sustainable commitment to welcoming immigrants with dignity. For more information, visit this web page and/or contact the Rev. Irene Hassan, UCC minister for refugee and migration services.
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