How helping a family seeking asylum changed our church group 

The Afghan family opened our eyes to how dangerous — and dehumanizing — the asylum process could be.

Afghan refugees hold an indoor rally to demand their U.S. visa applications be processed, in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 21, 2023. When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021, it carried tens of thousands of Afghans to safety. But two years later, many others are still waiting to be resettled. Those are Afghans who helped the war effort by working with the U.S. government and military or Afghan journalists and aid workers whose former work puts them at risk under the Taliban. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

(RNS) — Before we met an Afghan family who resettled in Orange County last year, most folks at my church knew little about asylum-seekers. We certainly didn’t understand how complicated the asylum issue was. But over the last year, our group of 14 Christian retirees has gained the education of a lifetime.  

My wife, Jenny, and I have been married for 51 years and have belonged to our Evangelical Free church since 2020. Like others there, we sought to volunteer during our retirement, especially since our four kids left home. So when our group heard about World Relief’s Good Neighbor Team program, which connects community groups with refugee families, we signed up.  

And so last August, we met Nazir, Zahab and their children. (We’ve changed names for privacy.) 

From the get-go, we discovered that the federal government gives asylum-seekers little assistance — and limits their ability to work. Nazir was especially eager to support his family but couldn’t receive legal employment authorization for at least six months. 

With minimal funds, the couple hadn’t purchased groceries in weeks. So two members of our team took Zahab and her eldest son to the store. A few days later, five of us arranged to come by with cake. Over the full meal the family insisted on feeding us, we learned their story. Nazir had assisted with evacuations during the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul and was assured his family would be evacuated too. They weren’t.  

Afterward, the Taliban took Nazir and beat him; other extended family members were in hiding or put to death. In early 2022, the family fled Afghanistan. They caught a series of flights to Mexico, hoping to request asylum at an American port of entry. On the journey, human traffickers forced Nazir to surrender his money. Finally, the family crossed safely. A noble group of Afghan Americans, themselves children of refugees, connected the family to World Relief. 

Our group was shocked by this story. Nazir and Zahab opened our eyes to how dangerous — and dehumanizing — the asylum process could be. The family didn’t only need material comforts; they needed trusted friends in this new country.   

Over the next four months, our group took the family grocery shopping, to doctor appointments and immigration hearings. As word got out, church donations poured in. But nine months after their arrival, Nazir still hadn’t received a work permit.  

In late November, Nazir texted me with anticipation as the day had finally arrived for the family’s hearing to receive humanitarian parole, a two-year status that provided a small amount of government assistance and would allow Nazir to work.  

But a few hours later, the hearing was canceled; the court had lost the schedule. Jenny and I checked on the family that afternoon. They were devastated. We encouraged them to persist, but Nazir feared deportation if they didn’t receive legal status soon.  

A few days later, when we couldn’t reach them, we drove to their apartment. It was dark. We feared the worst. Had they been deported? When Nazir finally texted, we were beyond relieved. They’d fled to another country with friendlier immigration policies. And, in fact, Nazir soon received benefits and then work authorization there. 

I’m happy for the family, but I wish America had done more for them. Nazir risked his life for Americans, only to be denied basic dignity in the United States.  

We now see migrants in a new light, including their resilience in the wake of trauma and the injustices they face, like delayed work permits.   

Jesus told us to welcome strangers. When we do this, we not only help others; we are changed ourselves. Our team cannot fix all our immigration challenges. But we can make a difference by helping one family. We’re glad we did. 

(Bill Lawrence and his wife, Jenny, are retirees and members of Fullerton Free Church. They live in Orange County. Their Good Neighbor Team is now serving a second refugee family. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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