Supporting Afghan refugees

Dear friends,

As we watched the dreadful news out of Afghanistan, I am having many conversations with our community members, some of whom came to the U.S. as refugees after previous conflicts.

Indeed, ReWA was founded by Southeast Asian women who suffered in isolation after coming the US, and vowed that future refugees to the Puget Sound would have a place to learn English, find jobs, and be empowered to rebuild their lives.

We at ReWA sympathize with the Afghan refugees and asylees who for a generation worked as partners with the U.S. to improve their country, but now find themselves in a vulnerable position. 

We stand together with our resettlement agency partners: International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, World Relief, the Archdiocese of Olympia, and Jewish Family Services, and others. They are working to provide immediate housing and short-term assistance to new arrivals.

ReWA’s Afghani-speaking staff are ready to provide long term assistance in housing, employment, counseling and more.

Many of you ask how to help.

  1. Give: I encourage you to make financial contributions to ReWA and any of the resettlement agencies above.
  2. Share your Home: Sign up with the Afghan Health Initiative to host a family for 3-7 days while resettlement agencies find them long-term housing.
  3. Learn more: Learn more from IRC about the rapidly-changing situation in Afghanistan and ways to support our Afghan friends & colleagues there:
  4. Volunteer: ReWA has several remote volunteering opportunities in our online classrooms, or you can sign up with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to help new arrivals get to appointments, set up apartments and other tasks.

Thank you for your support.

Mahnaz Eshetu

Support Refugee Education

Refugees connect with “TalkTime”

It’s 5pm on Wednesday and faces start to appear on the computer screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased social isolation for almost everyone, so Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) has moved ESL classes online. Since February 2021, a group of volunteers and ESL teachers have launched a new weekly online conversation circle called “Talk Time”. It gives refugee-students—many of whom are home much of the day—a chance to gather, learn, and be part of a community, albeit online.

As a dozen English-language-learners wave and greet each other, snippets of background conversation can be heard in Somali, Burmese, Arabic, Amharic, along with the occasional gurgle of babies or shouts from toddlers. Most of the attendees are women. Many of them are mothers.

Volunteers Lead Conversation

One TalkTime volunteer facilitator is Subha. She moved back to the US from South Africa after 23 years away and wanted to help others adjust to life in their new country. “One woman in TalkTime said she had never set foot in a classroom in her life. She grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So for her, coming to TalkTime almost makes her giddy.”

Other refugees who come to ReWA never got beyond a few years in school, so adjusting to life in the US has many challenges for them. At ReWA, they are paired with a case manager who speaks their native language to help them access food, housing and ensure their basic needs are met. At the same time, they can also attend English class.

Marie Kjeldgaard is an English teacher at ReWA. “Our students are so motivated. That’s why I love teaching.”

Learning goes both ways

One Talk Time attendee explained about the education system in her home country. “Where I come from in Eritrea, you don’t start school until you are 10 years old and then you only go for 3-4 years. Here in the US you can learn anytime.” Another student left school at age 11, and now was taking ownership of her own learning and took pride in something as simple as having her own notebook to write in.

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina explained that TalkTime differs from online class time because it’s informal. Sessions are 60 minutes twice a week and hosted by 2-3 volunteers who are provided with a list of topics and vocabulary words to use to stimulate conversation.

Yuliya added, “Also, since we never know who will show up to TalkTime, or what their English level will be, an ESL teacher is there to kick-off the session with an icebreaker question, like ‘Did you go outside today?’ This way, the teacher can quickly assess the students’ language levels and then assign them to break-out groups for the rest of the hour.” With the click of the button in Zoom, the attendees are distributed into small groups led by a facilitator, which makes conversation easier.

Amanda, a volunteer facilitator, said she is impressed by the students’ sense of responsibility. “Just learning how to read a bus schedule or how to make change [in coins]—these things take a lot of grit and determination. But once learned, they help one become independent. That is what is so rewarding about volunteering with TalkTime.”

[box] If you want to volunteer for TalkTime, email or visit: [/box]

Coming out of covid

In the past year, ReWA has helped over 200 immigrants and refugees in the Puget Sound access mental health counseling. Most suffer from depression, PTSD, or just have trouble adjusting to a new country.  All of these are exacerbated by the pandemic.

Azmi Jafaar is the clinical supervisor of ReWA’s Behavioral Health program. He was trained in Iraq as a medical doctor, and psychiatrist before coming to the US in 2016 where he became a certified Mental Health Professional in the state of Washington.

“I became interested in mental health when I was in high school. I read [Sigmund] Freud’s theories and learned how he treated his clients through ‘talk therapy’–which was revolutionary at the time.” Dr. Azmi said he was fascinated to learn how Freud classified the human mind, between the conscious and unconscious. “About 90% of our mental processes are unconscious. Most trauma can traced back to childhood trauma that often deeply buried deep in unconscious. Through talk therapy we can bring it to the surface and we can understand ourselves better. This is the first step to heal from trauma.”  

Increase in Calls

Over the past year, Dr. Azmi said the number of calls coming into ReWA has doubled. Although he said offering counseling by phone or video calls is less effective than in-person services, maintaining contact with clients during the pandemic was essential.

Dr. Azmi meets with clients by video and phone during the pandemic.

“In a crisis, it is normal for paranoia or superstition to increase, so keeping social connections, even by phone is crucial.”

Dr. Azmi knows about working during a crisis. He spent 15 years of his residency in general practice and surgery in Iraq and Libya, both sites of war and its aftermath. He decided to specialize in psychiatry and returned to Iraq where he studied for four more years.

Vaccine Hesitancy

For the past year, the main mental health complaints among ReWA clients were anxiety over the pandemic or losing their job, and dealing with illness of a family member. On top of this, Dr. Azmi said the spread of misinformation, coupled with social isolation, has led more people to believe in conspiracy theories. Dr. Azmi said when the vaccine was announced earlier this year, widespread conspiracy theories shared over social media led many of his clients to become hesitant about receiving the vaccine.

“My response was to get vaccinated. And to make sure my clients knew I was vaccinated. Over the past few months, this has encouraged most of them to also get vaccinated.”

ReWA’s counselors have also used this year to increase training in topics such as abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, trauma-informed care, and how to help clients deal with grief.

At the same time, Dr. Azmi was training staff in a new model of service delivery required by King County. Instead of a monthly cap for services, clients can receive what is deemed medically necessary. “This means the greater the stress and functional impairment the person experiences, the higher level of care is needed.”

ReWA is one of a handful of mental health providers in the Puget Sound who counsel immigrants and refugees in their native languages. ReWA counselors speak Arabic, Somali, Pashto, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi and Dari, and often share cultural background with their clients.

Dr. Azmi said, “This can help establish trust in communities where many hesitate to talk about mental health issues. But when they get help, it can change their life.”

Ramadan: Research, Write, Present

Eid Al-Fitr is the Islamic holiday celebrating the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan. This is the day when Muslims offer special prayers, greet each other with “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid”) and after a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, break the fast with a sumptuous meal and community gathering.

ReWA Youth Instructor, Seth Walker said, “Not everyone in the group is familiar with Ramadan, so this is a learning experience in more ways than one.”

The group project is part of ReWA’s Youth Job Readiness Training (YJRT) program, where youth from immigrant and refugee families from all over the world work in teams to research and create presentations to develop job readiness and life skills that will bring them success.

Students learn to conduct research online, participate in interviews, collaborate in teams and finish by offering a culminating presentation for students, parents and staff. This year, three groups decided to create presentations on the topics of immigration in America, the higab (headscarf) and Ramadan.

These student-led projects emphasize collaboration and creativity. “ReWA students are learning to pitch themselves and their ideas with the added pressure of doing so in a new language, English,” said, Kimberly Lee, Youth Program senior coordinator.

“All of our students are English language learners. But with our weekly virtual meetings, we give them the support to develop the confidence to do it,” said Seth. The program also has an advocacy component and ReWA invites speakers from a variety of job fields to share their work experience. They recently invited staff from Seattle Public Schools’ African American Male Achievement program to speak about life principles such as self-motivation, being impactful at school, and how to have a good work ethic –which they take apply in all areas of life.

Seth said YJRT sparks them to start thinking about what they want to do next in their lives—and plan the concrete steps to help them succeed. “This can be securing a summer internship, writing their first resume, or giving a presentation.”

He added, “These students have big dreams: to be doctors, nurses, artists and software engineers. At ReWA, we give them encouragement, help them visualize their futures. And then we help them hone their skills to make this a reality.”

Volunteer Appreciation

Vacuuming children. Is that a mistake in English vocabulary or a practical solution to messy kids?

Angela is a stay-at home mom of three, metal artist (pictured here in her workshop). She has been volunteering as a teacher’s aide at ReWA for eight years. When asked for an anecdote from the classroom, she recalled this line.

“We were discussing New Year’s resolutions and one student said he ‘was resolved to vacuum his children.’ We all cracked up–it wasn’t the right word exactly, but we understood—especially the parents among us.”

Angela said she used to volunteer at a film festival, but I decided, “”If I’m going to invest my time, I should spend it on something more meaningful to me.” When the covid-19 pandemic cancelled ReWA’s in-person ESL classes last spring, several volunteers stepped up to contact students weekly for conversation practice.

Another ESL volunteer, Annie, is a theater wardrobe coordinator who also wanted to get involved in the community. She started with ReWA in 2019 and has been calling six to eight students each week for conversation practice and homework help.

“Some are also studying for the citizenship exam and learning about the structure of the U.S. Congress. When the insurrection happened in January, we had talked about how history is still impacting current events. For students from countries with a history of colonialism, they understand this very well.”

She said some students are also curious about indigenous people in America, so she did some research and shared the Native Land App which helps people learn about local history by identifying the indigenous groups living in the area.

Both volunteers agree: they miss the classroom interactions. But these one-on-one conversations allow them to get to know the students better.

During the pandemic, ReWA ESL teachers have used zoom classrooms, phone apps and calls to stay connected with students.

Angela said, “One student from the Central African Republic used to be very shy in class and rarely spoke. But now we talk on the phone every week and she is becoming more comfortable trying out new English words.”

Many of ReWA’s ESL students arrived as refugees, fleeing violence. Some have lost family and friends, so even simple questions about their families and where they come from can bring painful memories to the surface. Angela said she has learned to ask more general questions and go from there. She said she admires these incredibly resilient people and their desire to learn and work hard to support their families.

Annie said, “Volunteering with ReWA this past year gave me a real measure of connection and I’m really grateful for that.”

Angela recalled a poignant moment in the conversation about New Year’s resolutions, “One student said, ‘This year I want to have a home.’” She sighed. “Thinking back, it has been a difficult year, but for me, it has also been very rewarding.”

[box] To learn more about volunteering with ReWA, visit our Volunteer page. [/box]