By Doris Elmore
People re-locate to different areas of the country every day and most people don’t think anything of it. When someone comes to your small town dressed different than you are used to, residents begin to wonder, and yes, talk. I am sure nothing would be said if they were dressed like everyone else and spoke English. But don’t panic, they are not doing anything wrong, we have to believe in others, regardless of race, color or nationality. If we lived in Chicago or even Decatur or Champaign, you would probably think nothing of it. We have universities there with students of all nationalities attending. What is the difference?
The non-profit organization, Afghan Welcome Home Project of Central Illinois, was established in September, 2021. Ilene Henderson of Decatur is the Operations Manager and in charge of the men being here and getting them assistance.
The men from Afghanistan are here legally with several currently living in Atwood and others in Arcola. They are refugees who served alongside the U.S. military for more than a decade. When the U.S. abruptly pulled out of Afghanistan and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, these men stayed true to their mission and ultimately became enemies of the new government. They had no choice but to flee, leaving behind their wives and children. It is hard to imagine leaving your country and not taking your family with you, not knowing if you would ever see them again.
They have been at an Afghan Evacuee Processing Center since they arrived in the United States on September 1, 2021. They were in Decatur for two weeks in January and arrived in Atwood on Sunday, February 6.
The ultimate goal is to help the men start their new, independent lives here in Central Illinois. They already have employment lined up and within coming weeks, will begin. Interpreters (translators) are being brought on board to assist these men in learning their new jobs. As soon as they are trained and able to begin their jobs, their material/financial needs will shift into community support. The men are also working on reading/learning English to take the exam to get a driver’s license.
Ilene stated, “It is important for everyone to try and remember that these men are from a different country, but are not less. They have material and task-oriented needs, but the most important thing is for area residents to be their friends, neighbors and advocates.”
An organizational meeting for Arcola and Arthur was held in Arcola on Thursday, February 10 to allow community members to sign-up to provide support to the men during their resettlement. Another meeting was held on Thursday, February 17, at the First Baptist Church of Atwood to inform community members about the Afghan Welcome Home Project’s mission and the temporary housing of several Afghan evacuees in the Atwood community. Ilene Henderson, who conducted the meetings, stated that she felt there was a very positive response from the residents attending.
The Afghan Welcome Home Project is looking for additional 3-bedroom rental properties in Arcola or Arthur. One of their priority needs at this time are passenger vans in good working condition. They need one 15-passenger van or two 7-passenger vans. They are willing to buy if it is at a low cost or if someone would like to donate a van of one of these sizes it would be appreciated. You may contact Ilene Henderson by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (404) 234-6513 if you need to talk to her about a van or rental property.
Emerging needs include:
1. DENTAL CARE: Several of the men are currently experiencing tooth pain. It would be ideal to find a dentist who would be willing to donate the exam and cleaning. If additional dental work is needed, the men will need help paying for that.
2. EYE EXAMS: The men are all in need of eye exams, it is unknown at this time how many may need glasses.
3. IMMIGRATION LAWYER: A lawyer that is willing to volunteer their time and expertise to assist in applying for visas and other paperwork. All of the men are currently under Humanitarian Parole, but are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas because of their work for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
4. Someone willing to take one or two of the men along on grocery shopping trips, and purchase their groceries.
5. Someone willing to take one or two of the men along on a clothing shopping trip, and purchase their selected clothing items.
6. Someone to pay the utilities bill and/or the internet/cell phone bill.
These are the facts regarding the “new neighbors” in Atwood, Arcola and possibly Arthur. How you react is ultimately your decision, but remember the commandment “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Before you make the decision whether to like or dislike these Afghan men, think what it would be like if you moved to another country, wouldn’t you want to feel welcomed?
They understand more English than they are comfortable speaking, but a smile and a handshake is a universal language and speaks a thousand words.