Since last fall, World Relief Quad Cities has helped resettle 235 former Afghanistan residents in the area. East Moline’s Lauren and Craig Peterson have been a key cog in the transition for three of those families.
Lauren (a mental health counselor) and Craig (a dentist) connected with Moline-based World Relief when they heard about the refugee crisis and took in their first Afghan couple in early December. They’ve hosted three families total, for about a week each; the Petersons have three kids of their own, ages 7, 2, and 1.
“Overall, it was really cool,” Craig said in a recent interview. “The last family we just had (in January), the kids were a little bit older; they had four children. Our oldest is 7, and their oldest were 8 and 6 and that was cool. She had somebody her age to play with. Even though there was the language barrier, kids are kids. They had things to play with and they didn’t need to talk constantly. They enjoyed it.”
Lauren said seeing all the kids interact was the best part of their hosting experience.
“When the second family, when they left, our two-year-old was like, ‘Where’s my friends?’” she said. “This most recent family, we took them to he Moline library and they had never been to the children’s section of a library before. They were happening to have the winter carnival and it was so fun.”
“When you give, you receive back more than you give,” Craig said, noting their Christian faith has been a strong motivating factor to open their home and hearts. “That has definitely been the case. We didn’t house these people for six months or a year. It’s really not that big of a sacrifice. We got much more out of it personally than we put into it.”
“This really was in the grand scheme of things, so small,” Lauren agreed. “It was one week of sitting at the feet of their lives, listening to their stories. One week of serving them food.”
“They are displaced and grieving for the rest of their lives,” she said, noting they went to dinner later at two of the families’ houses.
“We know that not everybody is happy that they’re here,” Craig said. “We hope at least that their first impression is, we are happy that you’re here. We want to help you in any way possible. We want you to know we love you.”
Lauren said they also hosted as a way of returning a favor, since two of their kids are adopted, and both stayed at a transitional foster home first, while paperwork was put in order.
“We are eternally grateful to them for taking such incredible care of our babies when we legally couldn’t,” she said. “These families are someone’s children, someone’s brother and sister…so we are trying to love them the same way our babies were loved before they came home.”
“World Relief does a great job,” Lauren added, noting it takes time to get a driver’s license. She enjoyed driving families around, getting them acclimated to the area.
“We’re part of the 9/11 generation and there were people who were really concerned for us,” Lauren said of those questioning if the Afghans were Taliban. “We trust the FBI’s vetting system. But at the end of the day, we kept saying, if this was us, what would we want? We would not want to be stuck in a hotel room for days on end with our children, like a prisoner. We’d want to be in a home with life and energy and fun.”
“We just wanted to give them what we would want,” she said. Craig told the families they wanted to stay friends for life.
“It’s cool to see the Quad Cities grow and become more diverse, and accepting of refugees,” he said. “That’s been encouraging, too, to see the Quad Cities in that way.”
The Petersons are on the list to take in more refugees.
“Honestly, all you need to host Afghan families is a comfy bed and some tea. They go through a lot of tea,” Lauren said.
Ambitious goal to resettle Afghan refugees
World Relief – a government funded resettlement agency – is among a vast network of charities and government organizations carrying out President Joe Biden’s plan to relocate nearly 100,000 people from Afghanistan by September 2022. As of early January, 48,000 Afghans have already moved off U.S. military bases and settled in new communities like the QC.
Laura Fontaine, executive director of World Relief QC, said the Afghans are technically called humanitarian parolees or on special immigrant visas. Compared to refugees, the big difference is, refugees are vetted overseas. For humanitarian parolees needing to flee their home quickly, it’s rare to have them vetted before they get to the U.S., she said. We bring them to the U.S. first, and then do background checks, Fontaine said.
Through advocacy at federal and state levels, humanitarian parolees qualify for everything that refugees qualify for.
The only way they stay in the U.S. is to apply for asylum, so the system will have over 75,000 people applying, required to do so within one year of being in the country, Fontaine said.
“We’re trying to work with pro bono lawyers,” she said. “We secure all their housing for them here. So just with our landlord contacts, but while we’re waiting, it takes time. It takes a long time to set up a house for 14 people. And so, we have a deal with the Hyatt in East Moline and our families have been staying at the hotel, usually in a suite while we wait for their house to be ready.”
World Relief has funding from the state of Illinois that covers some of that cost. Many other communities are able to use Airbnbs that are donated for refugees. “You have to make sure they have three meals a day, plus snacks,” Fontaine said.
“We’ve never had this high number of incoming new arrivals in such a short amount of time,” she said. “Most of the time, there’s so much liability with having homestay families. So I kind of shy away from it when I can. I don’t want to get sued by anybody. We’ve never really had to deal with or use these host families in the past.
“So this is like a new experience for us,” Fontaine said, noting the Petersons are their only temporary host family. “Lauren’s been wonderful.”
“I can only imagine the cultural differences,” she said. “Everybody’s heart is in the right place. They mean well and everybody wants to help these families. They’ve come from a war-torn country that helped Americans for 20 years. There’s so much more to it than just taking a family in for a few days.”
World Relief originally anticipated 150 Afghans to resettle, but there are many transfer cases (that have come to the QC for a variety of reasons), and Fontaine said she has a hard time saying no.
As of last week, she has served 235 Afghans in the area.
“They get services regardless, but it’s just where the funding comes from, and it just depends on the agency,” Fontaine said, noting they encourage local donations.
A federal match program helps with English grant program and getting a job. They can use state funding for hotels as long as they’re Afghans, she said. A host family like the Petersons saves the agency from having to pay for hotel stays.
A loving QC welcome
“The influx of Afghan refugees, the numbers were really high in comparison to what they normally receive – so they’re just not built to find 40 apartments and furnish 40 apartments all at once,” Lauren said. “There’s just so much need.”
For the Afghans’ dietary requirements, they bought halal food — which must conform to strict Islamic food preparation standards, including cleanliness and the method of animal slaughter (as quick and painless as possible).
“It’s not like you can go to Hy-Vee and pick up everything you need,” Craig said. “It was challenging when we first started, not knowing what is OK with them, and the communication barrier.”
“I feel like if you have a heart to serve, God works out the details,” Lauren said, noting it was hard even just making the first family feel at home. They used Google Translate to help communicate.
They either ordered nearby Indian food (that was halal) or shopped at the World Food Market grocery store in East Moline (669 Avenue of the Cities). “We just shopped and they got whatever they want,” Lauren said. “We’re family; we cook and combine it all, and it was great.”
Craig and his sister are dentists, and she’s in a Facebook group for dentists. She posted that her sister-in-law had Afghan refugees at home and asked if anyone spoke the Afghan language Dari (which wasn’t available on Google Translate, and World Relief translators are stretched thin).
“This dentist from New Jersey, who was an Afghan refugee from 1985, she messaged back and said, ‘I speak Dari; I’d be available 24/7 on WhatsApp, and she was,” Lauren said, noting she reliably translated for them.
Another mom in that group sent a big box of dresses and hijabs for the Afghan families, “culturally appropriate clothing that’s hard to find here,” she said.
Lauren prepared halal meals for the families, including at breakfast and for lunch when their babysitter was watching their little ones. The refugees usually stayed in the basement, which has its own bathroom.
“We kept offering more beds, but because of the culture,” they wanted to sleep in the same room, Craig said. “They just got blankets and pillows and slept in different parts of the room, altogether as a family.”
Compared to where they had been in military camps, the refugees said it was much more comfortable. The Petersons connected with the last family very well.
“They told us toward the end, we made them feel like they did when they were back home – like if they were just with their family,” Craig said. “Like we were their family. That was cool. They said they hadn’t felt that in the last several months.”
The families were flown from Afghanistan to a U.S. base in Qatar, then Germany, and a military camp in the U.S. for a few months. “It’s loud all the time,” Lauren said of the camps, noting families had little privacy there.
“It was a really humbling experience, because as Americans I think we assume anytime people land on our soil, they’re just thrilled to be here,” she said. “I think they were grateful and happy…But they left out of grief; the Taliban overthrew their government and so they were forced out.”
The first couple they hosted, the Petersons had to remember they were grieving.
“We’re serving people who in many ways have lost any connection to their family for the rest of their lives,” Lauren said. “A lot of them will never see their parents, their siblings ever again. The first family, he worked for the U.S. Embassy, but his father and brother also worked for the Embassy and they tried to all leave together in separate cars. They went to the airport at the same time.”
His father and brother weren’t allowed to leave at the same time, and he couldn’t say goodbye to them, she said. “He was just weeping and all four of us were in our living room crying together, mourning with them,” Lauren recalled. “We heard a lot of their stories.”
The last family, they had seen people shot at point-blank range by the Taliban for dancing, she said.
A home at church holds lessons
The Petersons’ home church is Quad City Church of Christ in Davenport.
“Our church is really service-oriented and focused on being a diverse, inclusive church,” Lauren said, noting she and Craig have gone on several health-related mission trips to Honduras. He first went in 2017 and has gone six times (until COVID shutdowns). Lauren has done trauma counseling, and they’ve helped with construction and painting.
“A lot of what Jesus did was healing the sick and taking care of the poor and destitute,” she said. “We’re trying to infuse that into our family’s culture; want our kids to see that.”
After these hosting experiences, their family tries to limit their consumption and questioned their ways of life, compared to other cultures.
“Their dedication to prayer, to the food they’re consuming being clean and butchered in a humane way,” Lauren said. “Being halal food, there’s no pesticides, no hormones…Oh my gosh, I feed my kids McDonald’s. It’s just humbling. It’s really made us sit with all the things we think are ideal. When you have people showing up at your house, and their entire possessions fit in a duffle bag…and your house is filled with stuff – it makes you want to turn your life inside out.”
She let her 7-year-old know they can give away more of their possessions.
Lauren liked to hear her explain to her friends how they tried to make the Afghan families happy.
World Relief needs for donations, staff and volunteers
World Relief is always looking for halal meat for its Muslim refugees; Fontaine is applying for a Quad Cities Community Foundation grant for that. They operate a culturally appropriate food pantry, which serves about 400 people a month.
World Relief works with the QC mosque to get halal meat. “Increased funding for food, so we can buy more,” Fontaine said, noting they’re always looking for bread.
“There are so many behind the scenes we do that aren’t funded,” she said. “We get $1,225 from the government per person, and that’s supposed to get us by for 90 days. That’s rent, food, clothing. Three months. So, I am knocking on doors at local foundations, if there’s businesses that want to donate, that would be great.”
“I think sometimes there’s a misconception that every person coming in is getting x amount of dollars,” Fontaine said. “No, they’re not.”
She also has doubled her staff, from 14 to 28 since the fall, to serve the Afghan population, including interpreters.
“This culture, they’ve had to be resilient,” Fontaine said of Afghans. World Relief also needs more volunteers, including for transportation. “We have some new policies, like they need to wear volunteer pages. All volunteers have to have background checks,” she said. “Even if they volunteer for another organization, they must have a World Relief background check, for liability and legal reasons.”
“We’re also looking for volunteers and good neighbor teams,” Fontaine said. “They’re groups of five or more people; they get training and they work for families up to six months. There’s more of a commitment, you meet once a week with them.”
They also need volunteers for the food pantry, English classes, and driving people to appointments.
World Relief is also looking for a clinical mental health counselor (a social worker or psychiatrist), someone who has worked with refugees; as well as intensive case managers.
For reasons that range from cultural identity to soothing stress or fear, many Afghan women have requested sewing machines, fabric, and other tools. These familiar items can be a lifeline during cultural adjustment, according to World Relief.
Other current needs include bus passes and hygiene items. If you’d like to donate your unused items, you can email Beth at email@example.com.
Working with a new Kewanee project
Through Samaritan’s Purse Afghan Resettlement Program, a new local group called Kewanee Welcomes plans to help resettle three Afghan families (who were displaced when Afghanistan was overtaken by the Taliban regime this past fall) to the area in the coming months.
Fontaine met with the group last fall and said there’s more to resettling refugees than hosting families.
“Every day, our phone rings off the hook,” she said of questions about Afghans. Fontaine can’t have a caseworker drive an hour each way to Kewanee.
“This is why I’ve had to hire Afghans on staff because of the language barrier,” she said. “There’s also no mosque in Kewanee. There’s no grocery store that has halal food. When I talked to the schools, they were excited about having diversity and different languages.”
“There’s gonna be a learning curve,” Fontaine said. Samaritan’s Purse is an organization that has done this, though it’s not a resettlement agency.
“My big concern is, it’s not like a puppy from the pound,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of trauma, a lot of medical issues.”
“The one thing that also doesn’t help, with these groups, when Afghans agree to go with them or sign up with them, they are losing their 90 days of benefits for state and federal assistance,” Fontaine said. “They’re no gonna be able to enroll in a match grant program, or any federal refugee program that’s going to help them.”
Since 1970, Samaritan’s Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God’s love.
An estimated 667,900 Afghans have been displaced inside the country since January 2021 – primarily due to insecurity and violence, according to the Kewanee group. The impact of the conflict on women and girls has been particularly devastating — 80 percent of newly displaced Afghans are women and children.
The needs of those who have had to flee suddenly are acute, increasing demand for shelter, food, water, non-food items, health services, livelihood opportunities and cash assistance.
It also may be challenging for refugees to adapt to a very small town like Kewanee, Fontaine said.
“Our families like to walk and visit each other. We have strategically placed them in areas where they can walk and be near other Afghans,” she said. “In Kewanee, you’re gonna have three families, but they’re going to be lonely.”
“I know they mean well; and Bobi is just an incredible person,” Fontaine said of project organizer Bobi Throneburg.
“When we come together to serve and protect these families, I believe we will learn some valuable lessons ourselves,” Throneburg said. “We pray that they find Kewanee to be a safe and welcoming community to begin a new chapter in their life.”
“When I went to speak with them, I don’t want to sugarcoat anything,” Fontaine said. “This is what they’re gonna be facing.”
“These host families are becoming caseworkers,” she said. “It’s mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting.”
World Relief also provides trauma-informed care through caseworkers, who are licensed social workers.
“There is more to resettlement than just providing clothes and food and a warm house,” Fontaine said. “That’s why the State Department has established resettlement agencies and that’s why we work with our state refugee coordinators.
“There are procedures in place and we have funding in place to make sure that we’re not failing an entire new population,” she said.
Kewanee Welcomes plans to provide families with housing, basic necessities, access to transportation, income support, legal assistance for immigration purposes, cultural and community orientation education, English language support, help with enrolling children in school, and job search support.
The group hopes to be able to raise enough funding to provide an additional 6 to 12 months of financial support, with the goal of each family being self-sustainable during this time. If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to the cause, contact Bobi Throneburg at 660-853-8084 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit the World Relief website.