When images of Afghan civilians desperate to escape their country before the Taliban takeover first began reaching American viewers last year, many likely felt helpless to do anything about it.
For the future members of Chizuk Amuno’s Welcome Circle, however, it was a feeling they refused to surrender to. They formed a dedicated group that has gone to great lengths to alleviate at least one Afghan family’s desperation by helping make a home for them here in Baltimore.
“Chizuk Amuno’s Welcome Circle is made up of a group of volunteers that work under the umbrella of HIAS,” said Cheryl Snyderman, the director of Gemilut Hasadim at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “And they have been assigned a family from Afghanistan that came to Baltimore with nothing, and we settled them in an apartment, got them clothing, food, transportation, furniture and a job, and essentially gave them the ability to sustain themselves.”
A May 2 Zoom event, titled “GH [Gemilut Hasadim] Presents: Journey with an Afghani Family,” will give several members of the Welcome Circle a chance to speak about the work they’ve been doing and what motivates them to do it, Snyderman said.
“I know for sure that the members who have met [the family] first hand have been touched very, very deeply,” Snyderman said. “They love this family, and they want to do whatever they can to make sure they’re safe and happy and taken care of.”
The Welcome Circle formed in the last several months, in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan and the humanitarian and migration crisis that resulted from it, said Snyderman, a resident of Pikesville. With so many people fleeing Afghanistan, both government and nonprofit resettlement agencies were unable to handle the sheer volume of people in need of a new home.
As such, HIAS, an official resettlement agency, began supporting a model in which synagogues and other groups could serve in the role of resettlement agencies, Snyderman said.
The Welcome Circle was started by Margie Simon, a lifetime member of Chizuk Amuno, whom Snyderman described as the “mama bear” of the group. The group has since taken charge of helping one specific Afghan family of three, which includes a father, a pregnant mother and a toddler. Both parents are college educated, said Simon, a resident of Pikesville, in an email. The father previously performed contract work at the American embassy in Kabul, which made him a target for the Taliban. Snyderman was unable to divulge their names.
The Welcome Circle currently has nine principal members who meet weekly over Zoom, said Snyderman, while other volunteers have donated items like food, clothing or furniture. As the members have different useful skills, individual members focus on different needs the family has. One member who is a doctor, for example, focuses on the family’s medical needs, while another member with experience in education helped find a preschool for the toddler.
Snyderman described herself as “staff support” to the Welcome Circle, helping with areas such as publicity and finances and serving as a liaison to Chizuk Amuno’s clergy and board.
One of the requirements for working under HIAS that the Welcome Circle had to meet was to create a budget that could address the family’s needs for six months, to prove that the Welcome Circle could support them, Snyderman said. To that end, the group has so far raised “several tens of thousands of dollars,” she added.
As the father is a civil engineer, he was able to find employment relatively quickly, Snyderman noted. Simon added that the family is now financially self-sufficient, though they still need help with things like transportation, English language tutoring and access to medical care.
The Welcome Circle also plans to assist family members of the mother who are currently waiting for their visas to be processed before coming to the Baltimore area, said Simon. She speculated that the group might use this model in the future to help resettle Ukrainian refugees, though firm plans on that had not yet been made.
“The family has taught me about resilience, courage and determination,” Simon said. “In this very difficult time it was so gratifying to be involved with a project that so clearly had an immediate impact.”