By Sandee Houston, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church
My decision to become a host home for Afghanistan refugees probably began with my dear parents who often quoted Luke 12:48 “To those whom much is given, much is required." My St. Christopher’s parish in Pensacola has a parish refugee liaison to Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program. Until this described experience, I had done little else except an occasional contribution of necessary items for refugees. On August 26, as I watched the news displays of the throngs of people at the Kabul airport needing refuge and seeking safety away from the Taliban, I began to hear a small whisper: “You have a large home with two empty bedrooms and a bath.”
Little did I know that very day some 7,708 air miles away on the grounds of the Kabul airport was a 36-year-old Afghan man who had served seven years as an interpreter for the United States military service. He and his wife and children were in serious danger awaiting a flight at the Kabul Airport to take them away from their homeland.
The whisper in my ear did not dissipate, but I did not immediately act on it. Finally in late September, without consulting my adult sons or friends, I called Maria Roswold of Catholic Charities and said, “I am a retired widow with a small dog and a large home with two unoccupied bedrooms and a bath. I’m not certain if I, or this portion of my home and common living areas, would meet your qualifications to become a refugee host home; but, I am offering.”
Months went by and I heard nothing. I thought I had not qualified, but on December 6, 2021, I got a phone call from Rachel Harding, St. Christopher’s refugee liaison. A family of four would be arriving at the Pensacola Airport on the evening of December 11. They would reside with me. Rachel told me the two children were preschool age, and by the way, “Do you mind that the mother is about 6 months pregnant? This is your chance to back out.”
How could I possibly say I was not going to house a pregnant Mary-like refugee and her family, especially during Advent! I said, “Okay Rachel, let’s do this!” A whirlwind of preparations began. Neighbors stepped in with excitement and helped me to childproof rooms, to move furniture, and ready the upstairs residential quarters. My whisper had now disappeared, but in its place, I kept hearing and singing the words from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” and thanking God for allowing my whisper to become a reality.
At 8:05 p.m. on December 11, 2021, I answered my doorbell to find a smiling, almond-eyed, bearded young father holding a two-year-old boy in one arm while gripping the hand of a four-year-old boy with his beautiful, pregnant Mary-like hijab-clad wide-eyed wife standing beside him with an entourage from Catholic Charities. Introductions were made and Afghan food was brought to the family along with the only possessions they could bring.
That evening, the family spent their first night without being in a tent since August 26 when their refugee journey took them from Kabul to Qatar for two weeks. Upon arrival in Qatar, Zuma looree*,( my daughter) was whisked off the airplane to a Red Cross ambulance for emergency surgery while two months pregnant for a ruptured ovarian cyst, and Zuma zoya*(my son) and children were left in a refugee tent to worry about her for an entire week before she was returned to the refugee camp via ambulance. Following another week in Qatar, they were flown to a new refugee camp in Germany. They reflected this was a very cold two weeks. Then from Germany, they were flown to Kosovo. Finally, on November 5, the family arrived on United States soil at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where they remained until an early morning departure from Philadelphia to Charlotte and onto Pensacola.
It was an amazing God-thing how quickly we became a family although the father (Zuma zoya) was the only one who spoke English. After two weeks, he translated his wife’s words to me, “My mother died years ago and I have been without a mother, now I have found a mother here.” I was asked if they could call me mother, so I went from being called Me Me to Mother. The children rapidly learned to signal me to tune the television to cartoons and to call out my dog’s name or say hi. Zuma looree*(my daughter) used the kitchen to prepare her family’s three daily meals. The weariness in everyone’s eyes soon fled, laughter was overheard as they enjoyed their family meals, always together, and I was always invited to join them. My once quiet home was now filled with sounds of blocks being thrown, balls bouncing, toy trucks and cars being wheeled everywhere and happy sounds I could not understand because the mother and the children spoke Pashto, not English.
My solo act of volunteering to become a host home gave numerous others an opportunity to give. Gifts for the boys and clothes for their parents were delivered by friends, neighbors, and church and book club members. Food and gift cards, baby gifts, Christmas presents, a bicycle for my Afghan son to use, each donation granted folks an opportunity to show love.
“I know we worship God differently, but we do have the same God.” I agreed with my new son’s words. We reflected that God had brought us together, and how thankful we were for the experience to transform us from strangers to becoming a new family.
Around 3:30am the morning of January 14, 2022, my Afghan son, knocked near my bedroom suite downstairs and said, “ Mother, you know when a woman’s water breaks, well, that has just happened. We need to go to the hospital.” Quickly I dressed while he put coats on the children upstairs and helped his wife downstairs, gathered up their documents, and we drove to the hospital’s Ob/Gyn Emergency Entrance where they remained. It was the father’s first time being in the labor room as his wife delivered a baby. I drove the sleeping boys back home and awaited the news of the birth. At 11am, I received a photo of their baby girl. Their family of four had become a family of five.
Most refugees remain in the host home for just a month, but with the pregnancy and the delivery, we remained a family as long as we could. Early on the morning of February 16, 2022, my new family flew off to permanent resettlement to be closer to their biological family members who had been in the United States for years. The texts, the calls, the emails, the photo exchanges, continue. The love that began by responding to God’s whispers is there forever.
As the United States may soon have an opportunity to host refugees from Ukraine, I wholeheartedly encourage you to listen and respond should you experience God’s whispers calling on you to volunteer either your home or resources. Being a host home is not always without some language, cultural differences, or a challenge or two, but it is a life-changing opportunity that will leave you with great joy, and perhaps as I did, you will gain an additional family to add to your biological one.
For the protection of my new family’s safety and of their remaining family in Afghanistan I am not using their proper names, nor am I sharing any photos which might enable the Taliban to identify them and harm them. I refer to the Afghan father as “Zuma zoya” (son) and his wife as “Zuma looree” (daughter).
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Refugee Ministry
Hello, my name is Rachel Harding, and I help connect our parishioners to refugee resettlement efforts. Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida is the agency, located in Pensacola, that resettles refugees in our area. Back in 2017, a few others and I reached out and partnered with them. Now, every time a new refugee individual or family comes here to start a new life, we help Catholic Charities as much as we can. It is often in the form of gathering items to set up a house, donating new/gently used clothing or donating gift cards for other things they may need. We also try to have a few people greet them at the airport and make them feel welcomed. There are opportunities to help in more personal ways, such as driving people around to appointments or English classes at PSC.
Oftentimes, the news of a new arrival is delivered at the last minute. It’s just the way it seems to go! The process is all so complicated. Once the plan is complete, a flight is booked and a new person or family makes their way here! We have a good relationship with Maria Roswold, the Refugee and Immigration Specialist at Catholic Charities. I last heard that two Vietnamese families will be coming to our area soon, and they plan to resettle in Navarre. The date and time are still unknown. Once I find out, I will send an email out to those interested parishioners on my ministry list.
It’s very rewarding to get to be a part of this ministry. If you want to get involved, here is my info:
Cell phone: (850) 529-3766
I’d be happy to add you to my updates list. If driving people around and having more of a personal connection interests you, then becoming an official volunteer with Catholic Charities is something you may pursue. To do so, contact Maria Roswold at Catholic Charities to start the process. Her contact info is here:
Work phone: (850) 435-3576
Work address: 1815 N 6th Ave., Pensacola, FL 32503