Catholics continue to rally around Afghan refugee families in St. Louis – Catholic News Agency

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First getting connected through the community organization Welcome Neighbor STL, Wittman volunteered to get paired with an arriving Afghan family to offer them material assistance and, more importantly, friendship. She quickly learned that Afghans who have been fortunate enough to make it to the U.S. still face significant challenges after arriving: the language and cultural barriers, a lack of money and credit history, and, in many cases, the lack of a supportive community. 

The local resettlement agency was only capable of giving them the very basics needed to survive. What the Afghan families needed, Wittman realized, were friends who could provide help long-term. Little did she know just how much she would be able to provide for her new friends.

In November 2021, the Wittmans met the Wardaks, a couple with six young children fleeing for their lives who spoke no English and were initially placed in a bare apartment. The father, Farid, worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, necessitating the family’s flight to safety after the Taliban takeover. 

Ann Wittman with the Wardak children: Farhad (9), Farzana (5), Fariha (7), Eesa (8 months), Farman (2), and Fawad (4). Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
Ann Wittman with the Wardak children: Farhad (9), Farzana (5), Fariha (7), Eesa (8 months), Farman (2), and Fawad (4). Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

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Not content to let them live in poverty, the Wittmans bought the family a house using money from their savings to cover the down payment and began collecting enough rent from the Wardaks to cover the modest mortgage. Wittman was also able to arrange for the family to get a car, which allowed the father of the family, Farid, to get to work every afternoon and to English class twice a week. Farid’s English, which was nonexistent when he arrived, has improved dramatically as a result, Wittman noted. 

“I can understand everything that he says because he’s dedicated himself to English classes at the institute. He’s probably the only Afghan I know who’s done that,” she said. 

More than a year after CNA first spoke with Wittman, she said the Wardak family continues to thrive. Back in August 2022, Farid said he had hopes of buying the house back from the Wittmans “someday” — and thanks to his hard work over the past year and a half, Wittman said Farid was able to achieve that goal. He’s now officially a homeowner. 

“He really feels part of his neighborhood now. He’s become friends with both next-door neighbors…they have awesome neighbors who help them, who care about them,” Wittman said.

“We’re going to get many more people in the same boat as Farid. It’s going to take time, but at least we did it once.”

Ann Wittman with Farid Wardak, an Afghan immigrant, in front of the house that the Wittmans purchased for the Wardak family in the St. Louis suburb of Affton. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
Ann Wittman with Farid Wardak, an Afghan immigrant, in front of the house that the Wittmans purchased for the Wardak family in the St. Louis suburb of Affton. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

Wittman said another family featured prominently by CNA in August 2022 has seen a marked improvement in their condition. Jawana — a former principal of a school in Kabul — now works at Catholic Legal Immigration Services in St. Louis, making good use of the fact that she speaks five languages. 

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After friends held a fundraiser at Villa Duchesne High School, Jawana’s family was able to buy a second car. In August 2022, the family had no car at all, meaning the father of the family had no choice but to ride a ramshackle bicycle to work, even in harsh weather conditions. 

“They’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get to where they are now, but they’re a hard, hard-working couple,” Wittman said.

Mobilizing the community

Wittman and her cousin Delia Andrews, a parishioner at Ste. Genevieve du Bois Parish in Warson Woods, started a nonprofit organization, HumanKind STL, to raise the funds needed to continue their grassroots efforts helping Afghan families arriving in the St. Louis area. They hope that by garnering donations from far and wide, they’ll be able to provide the material items the Afghan families need to thrive. 

But Wittman is far from the only St. Louis Catholic marshaling funds and manpower in service of the Afghan families. Other Catholic organizations, including the city’s many Catholic schools, have gotten involved as well, she said, hosting fundraisers for the families. Students at St. Louis’ Catholic high schools have gotten involved as volunteers. 

The joyful spirit of the Afghan children was on full display on Dec. 9 at a Christmas party sponsored by St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today (START), a community organization that works closely with Wittman’s group, HumanKind. Wittman said START — which is primarily led by students from local Catholic high schools — put together laundry baskets full of household items for each of the 40 Afghan families who attended the event. They also mobilized 30 teen volunteers who helped plan crafts and games for the children who attended the party. 

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