Catholics continue to rally around Afghan refugee families in St. Louis – Catholic World Report

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Children of Afghan immigrants to St. Louis play during a holiday party on Dec. 9, 2023. / Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

St. Louis, Mo., Dec 30, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Despite dominating the news cycle for months in 2021, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the plight of the thousands of people who fled the embattled country has largely exited the public consciousness. But all across the country, exhausted Afghan men, women, and children continue to arrive — and in many places, Christians are the ones doing the most to welcome them to their communities.

One such community is St. Louis, which welcomed the “largest single influx in our more than 100-year history” with the arrival of more than 1,000 Afghan refugees during 2022, according to the International Institute, the city’s official resettlement agency. More than 700 more are expected by the end of 2023, the organization said. Many are destitute families with children.

Among the many people who have stepped up to help, one St. Louis Catholic has provided for the newcomers in ways she never could have imagined.

Ann Wittman — a stay-at-home mother of three sons — and her husband bought one Afghan family a house. She’s given other families donations of large items such as washers, dryers, furniture, and vehicles. She’s befriended dozens of families and has seen many of those families go from penniless and friendless to thriving.

It’s all an expression of her Catholic faith, she said, and her response to the imperative she learned growing up to treat the poor as if they were Christ himself.

“My faith has grown tremendously throughout this, because I see the Holy Spirit in action every single day,” Wittman told CNA.

“I have gotten so close to God through this process because he is showing me the way. He is guiding me through the people that I meet … There is no doubt that God is putting me where I’m supposed to be right now at this phase of my life, and very clearly telling me to use the gifts that I have to help these people.”

“I see Jesus in the people that I’m helping every single day,” she continued.

“My faith has grown greater in the past year than probably it had in all 47 years of my life prior, because I know without a doubt that God has put me exactly where I’m supposed to be, to be doing the work that I’m doing. And I truly see Jesus in the people that I’m helping.”

An Afghan immigrant family poses after receiving a basket of donated goods during a holiday party on Dec. 9, 2023. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
An Afghan immigrant family poses after receiving a basket of donated goods during a holiday party on Dec. 9, 2023. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

‘At least we did it once’

The Taliban began its takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 with brutal repression, leading to a massive exodus as thousands of people sought to escape the country.

The Taliban achieved complete control of Afghanistan after a chaotic Aug. 31, 2021, pullout by the United States military. Since then, many families wishing to reach the United States have been trapped in squalid refugee camps in intermediate countries like Qatar, only finally arriving in the U.S. — if they’re lucky — after multiyear journeys.

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

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.

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.

Children of Afghan immigrants to St. Louis pose in front of a Christmas tree during a holiday party on Dec. 9, 2023. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
Children of Afghan immigrants to St. Louis pose in front of a Christmas tree during a holiday party on Dec. 9, 2023. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

Wittman said she has sought to get Catholic parishes organized and mobilized to help the Afghan families by forming “family partner teams” to adopt Afghan families and help them with their most pressing needs. The results have been stellar — a family partner team at St. Alban Roe Parish in Wildwood, for example, raised enough money to buy one Afghan father an “almost brand-new” minivan so that all of his kids could be safely and legally buckled in their seats. St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood is forming a team to do something similar, she said.

“I think the story that we can tell is how impactful these family partner programs are and how our churches should all learn from this perfect model of St. Alban Roe. It has been so impactful,” Wittman said.

“The people who want to help but don’t know how to help — I’m able to get them involved and guide them, and help their faith. And it’s like a ripple effect of joy that we’re spreading. The Holy Spirit for sure is involved in all of our work.”

Wittman was also quick to emphasize that most of the Afghans are working extremely hard, and often in a very resourceful manner, to improve their own situations. She said she has also sought to encourage the Afghans who are already living and thriving in St. Louis to help their arriving countrymen and form new communities.

“Afghans have to help Afghans. They’re starting to understand that better,” she said.

‘You’re in our prayers every night’

Almost all of the refugees arriving from Afghanistan to St. Louis — a predominantly Catholic city — are Muslim. Wittman said that although few of them have explicitly expressed interest in Christianity, she has been able to share her faith with many of them. For example, she at one point had the opportunity to explain to one of the Muslim refugees the importance of Mary in her life.

Wittman said she frequently hears from the refugees that they are praying for her and her family.

“We pray for you every day. You’re in our prayers every night. We’re so grateful for you. We know that you are our lifeline to success in America and we pray all the time. We’re so grateful,” Wittman said she hears them say.

Ultimately, Wittman said she feels strongly that her work is guided by the Holy Spirit and that the Catholic faith of many St. Louisans is being strengthened by the charitable work they are doing for their Afghan neighbors.

“Everyone who helps, their faith has grown and their relationship with God has gotten better, because we all know that this is what Jesus came to earth to show us what to do, to tell us how to live, to show us how to treat other people,” she explained.

“We are in such an opportunity right now, where there is so much need for us to be Jesus to others.”


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