After fleeing their homeland amidst the Taliban takeover, two refugee families from Afghanistan are settling into southeastern Connecticut communities, ready to rebuild their lives.
Last week, a family of seven moved into their new home on a quiet lakeside road in Old Lyme. They’re adjusting to life in their new neighborhood and nation while caring for the latest addition to their family, a newborn daughter who was born enroute to their new home. The now four-week old was born on a U.S. military base shortly after the family evacuated their country.
The couple in their late 20s, along with their 10-year-old, 8-year-old and 3-year-old sons and 4-year-old daughter, traveled for days to reach American soil after flying out of Afghanistan. They lived on a U.S. military base before being flown to New York, driven to New Haven and finally to Old Lyme.
The family — not being identified due to safety concerns — have spent one week in the three-bedroom house near Rogers Lake that was bought by three Old Lyme churches for the sole purpose of providing refuge to those in need.
“The most remarkable thing to me is that we were all watching those airlifts from Afghanistan on the news, and now we have the realization that just six to eight weeks later, one of the families that was on one of those airplanes would have their story end, or begin, right here in Old Lyme, Connecticut,” said Steve Jungkeit, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, one of the churches that helped buy the house for refugees.
Jungkeit said the support from the Old Lyme community in the family’s first week has been overwhelming. Donations of clothes, supplies and money have been pouring in, he said. For weeks, volunteers worked tirelessly to make sure cupboards were stocked, warm coats were in the closets and that a hot, homemade meal was ready for their arrival.
This week, they’ve begun coordinating doctor appointments, finding job openings, and the older children have been enrolled in school, set to start classes on Thursday.
“This story that has these global ramifications moved in a way that these seven individuals somehow arrived here and are now a part of our community,” Jungkeit said. “For us, it’s an honor to be able to welcome them and invite them deeper into the fabric of this community.”
Late Friday night, a family of four was set to become part of the New London community after a similar journey. A man, woman and their two young children — who also were not being identified — were flying in from a military base and moving into an apartment in New London. The home was rented by Start Fresh, a volunteer nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the city.
This is the seventh family Start Fresh’s volunteers have welcomed since the organization’s inception in 2016: three from Syria, two from Sudan and one from Afghanistan.
The newest arrivals will be moved into one of two homes Start Fresh has rented in the city, but the home is only temporary. They’ll live there for six months and then will need to be resettled again, said Start Fresh volunteer Vivan Samos. She said the organization has been struggling to find affordable housing in the city lately.
Both Start Fresh and the Old Lyme churches work closely with New Haven-based nonprofit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, which oversees the resettlement of hundreds of refugees each year. IRIS expects to assist at least 300 refugees from Afghanistan by the end of the year, given the influx of recent evacuations. The house in Old Lyme, purchased in 2017, has been home to families from Syria, the Congo, Puerto Rico and Iraq.
In most cases, volunteers in Old Lyme and New London don’t know that a refugee family is coming until a day or two before they arrive. Though they prepare as much as possible in advance, they’re often thrown some curveballs, with only a few hours to prepare.
“Last weekend we had everything done for our final preparations, the fridge was full of food, the beds were all made, and then we found out we were also welcoming a 3.5-week-old baby,” said volunteer Kathy Kronholm, who lives in East Lyme and has been volunteering with the First Congregational Church’s refugee program for five years. “We went into zoom mode to find a Pack and Play and everything else we needed for a baby.”
Jungkeit said that Kronholm and other volunteers went above and beyond to make the children feel at home, filling a basket with blocks and books and toys and even sitting stuffed animals, one for each child, at the table.
As a mother, grandmother and former preschool teacher, Kronholm said she loved preparing to welcome so many children and is now enjoying spending time playing with them.
“It’s amazing how resilient the children are. They seem happy and they’re playing and they’re really at home there,” she said. “Every time I come to the door, they come up and shake my hand. Because their dad has taught them to shake hands to say hello, and then they hug me, and we sit down and do a puzzle or look at a book.”
Despite not speaking the same language, Kronholm says she already feels so connected to the family.
“The feeling of connection and closeness really stands out to me,” she said. “They’ve only been here a week and even with the language barrier, you can feel the closeness from solely being near someone and having that connection of love and caring.”
Through community partners like those in Old Lyme in New London, IRIS strives to help refugees rebuild their lives and find a sense of community in their new towns and cities. The relocation of these two families was ideal, since they know each other from Afghanistan.
Even before the family arrived in New London, volunteers in New London and Old Lyme were working together to make plans for them to reunite.
“We’re all really glad that there is a close proximity with these friends. Given the size of the U.S., the fact that they’re going to be within 20 minutes of each other is a minor miracle,” said Jungkeit. “I think that’s going to go a long way in easing some of the displacement and creating a sense of home.”
Jungkeit recognized that being dropped into a new town, far away from family, where they don’t know the language, is a traumatic experience all its own for these families.
“Assimilating into a brand new community halfway around the world is its own trauma, in a sense,” he said. “So for all of the welcoming and support we provide, it can only do so much to eradicate the radical rupte that’s taking place in their lives. It’s going to take time, and I believe we have the resources in place to help them.”
Jungkeit said he hopes folks in New London and Old Lyme communities will continue to make their new neighbors feel welcome and supported through their transition.
To help these families, Jungkeit said the church is always accepting monetary donations, which can be made on the church’s website, https://fccol.org/, or by check made out to the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme with “refugees” in the notes.
Samos said Start Fresh is always looking for volunteers and monetary donations to help with housing and other expenses. For more information or to sign up to volunteer, visit www.startfreshct.org.
IRIS is asking for help in the form of donations, and volunteers. Ann O’Brien, spokesperson for IRIS, said the organization is actively seeking new co-sponsor groups to help resettle refugees throughout the state. IRIS is planning to train 300 people in the next few weeks in how to run resettlement groups, but that won’t meet their needs.
“We’re going to need double that,” she said.
Donations can be made to www.irisct.org and will go directly to offsetting the costs of purchasing essential items for refugees upon arrival. The organization is also asking for collections of items such as backpacks, school supplies, winter coats and waterproof winter boots. Anyone with items to donate can email [email protected]