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Welcoming Afghan refugees is nothing new to this California church


Carmichael Presbyterian Church partners with a local resettlement agency to meet needs

February 7, 2022

Participants in Carmichael Presbyterian Church’s English as a Second Language program are pictured at graduation. The graduates’ faces are hidden to protect their privacy. (Photo by Heidi Guttschuss of World Relief)

An undercurrent of fear ran through the celebration for graduates of English as a Second Language classes conducted by the refugee resettlement agency World Relief at Carmichael Presbyterian Church in Carmichael, California, a city 11 miles northeast of Sacramento.

It was a huge accomplishment for Afghan refugees, particularly with the added difficulty of taking the classes virtually during a pandemic. But coming in late August, Carmichael church member Kathy Lewis says the participants were worrying about loved ones in Afghanistan as the U.S. military withdrew, including people from the Carmichael community who had gone back to visit for the summer.

The community, largely made up of people who got out of the country on Special Immigrant Visas because they had worked with the U.S. military, was now gripped with concern about whether they would see their families and friends again as the United States left and the Taliban took control of the country.

While many communities across the United States are having their first encounters with Afghan refugees, the Carmichael community has worked with Afghans for years. One out of nine Afghan refugees in the United States has settled in the Sacramento area.

Carmichael’s tradition of welcoming refugees goes back to the 1990s, when the area was primarily seeing people coming in following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years the population in the neighboring Arden-Arcade community has shifted to Afghan refugees, and a group of people from the church met with World Relief staff to see how they could best serve the new residents.

“The model is if there is a refugee resettlement agency in your area, to work with them,” Lewis said. “They know best what the needs are.”

When they were told English as a Second Language (ESL) classes were needed, and that one of the barriers to taking those classes was child care, church members worked to convert space from a now-defunct nursery school program into classrooms and child care staffed with volunteers. There were some lessons learned about things such as taking care of children who had never been away from their mother before. But Lewis says the program got off to a successful start.

The Rev. Ivan Herman, the church’s associate pastor, said Carmichael also developed a teen outreach that allowed students to gather at the church in groups to play soccer and hang out.

“That was really important, especially for these teen girls, to have a safe space that they can gather with one another and not be responsible for younger children, younger siblings and not have to spend that hour translating or interpreting for their parents,” Herman said. “They were really able just to come in and have a safe space, and they were welcomed in the church, and they knew that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. The ESL classes went online, but the need for child care during lessons remained. Lewis said the team at Carmichael adjusted, putting together activities for the children that could be done safely outside with a volunteer while the classes went on. Or there were video lessons the children could watch while their mothers attended class.

Lewis says it has been important to have a committee for Carmichael’s refugee work and it has attracted new volunteers.

“It’s really kind of exciting that we’re not just cycling people through that volunteer for everything,” she said. “And we’re an aging church, so with this, we’re bringing in some younger people.”

Lewis said a man she was helping prepare for his driver’s license test was desperately working with his military contacts to try to get family members out of Afghanistan.

“It’s just amazing the tenacity to get the family out, because their lives are in danger,” Lewis said. “And we don’t realize how serious that is. Their lives are in danger.”

Working with the Afghan community has helped Carmichael learn to be a church that does things with its neighbors as opposed to doing things for people. And that perspective makes moments like that graduation particularly sweet, even if it was a tense time.

“It’s really working, respecting their culture, and doing it because that’s what Jesus wants us to do,” Lewis said. “That’s the why.”

Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Welcoming Afghan refugees

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Caralee Jones, Manager, Admin. & Client Services, Presbyterian Foundation
Debra Jones, Risk Management Assistant, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

God of grace, hear our prayers for those who do the work of the kingdom in difficult circumstances. Stand with them and inspire us by their example. May we find new ways to speak the words of faith to our neighbors as we share the gifts you have given us through Christ. Amen.

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