BY HEATHER WRIGHT — Hyattsville is a officially a sanctuary city. Whether or not you voted for this result, many of us can agree on wanting our area to be a genuine sanctuary — a place of safety or refuge — and a launching pad for individuals and families from other countries, especially when they have come to the U.S. to escape persecution.
Consider a father of five who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He and his family, natives of Afghanistan, found their lives in danger because of this service. What happened when they came to the U.S. as refuge-seekers looking for a place to call home?
This family and about 20 others from Syria and Afghanistan moved into the same apartment complex within a nine- to 10-month period, placed by a variety of resettlement agencies working with the U.S. Department of State. Approximately 30 students from these families enrolled in Cheverly’s Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School (GNS) for the 2016-17 year. This influx could have overwhelmed GNS. One kindergarten teacher alone welcomed six Syrian and Afghan children into her classroom, according to PTA treasurer, Lowri de Jager.
After soliciting donations for school supplies, lunches and uniforms, the PTA wanted to address long-term family needs by focusing on three categories: donations, tutoring and establishing host families to partner with the resettling families. De Jager said in an email that the initial donation drive resulted in approximately 200 people collecting 1,000 items “from soap to sofas,” the raw materials that help make a home. Numerous area organizations, including the Cheverly Parent Resource Center, Cheverly United Methodist Church, Cheverly Women’s Club, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area and Progressive Cheverly, have partnered with the PTA to assist these refuge-seeking families.
In spring 2017, following the initial donation drive, several Cheverly residents with connections to St. Jerome Church (SJC) contacted SJC to see if the parish would offer support to two new Afghan families, each of whom has five young children and a father who had assisted the U.S. military. Hyattsville resident and SJC parishioner Catherine Distajo helped coordinate communications and these new donation and supportive efforts, reaching out to SJC parishioners and area Catholic listservs, as well to the broader Hyattsville community through the H.O.P.E. (Hyattsville Organization for a Positive Environment) and Hyattsville Nurturing Moms listservs. Many more area individuals answered the call for aid.
Why is this Hyattsville paper pointing out a movement that began in Cheverly? As a parishioner of SJC, I’m writing about what I know and have seen in action. And it’s a great example of a response to community and immigrant needs that expands and strengthens connections between communities, between public and parochial schools, churches and civic organizations, between cultures and so on. Many of us share the need to make homes. At a time when immigration-related debates are becoming increasingly vociferous and polarizing, collective responses like this expand and fortify the common ground between us.
I was especially impressed by the emphasis on host families. Host families help resettling families adjust by maintaining connections with them, providing broad assistance and advice and, hopefully, developing lasting friendships. The Cheverly organizers have looked beyond meeting material needs to meeting deeper relational and cultural needs. De Jager noted, “The host families that I know spend time with their [immigrant] families on a regular basis, enjoying family meals together, inviting them to the Cheverly Pool, taking them to sightsee in the city. Right now host families are helping [resettling] students get ready for the new school year by getting their school supplies and uniforms.”
A measure of character — our own and our community’s — is the hospitality extended to foreigners and strangers: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
Most of us have felt like a stranger at some point, whether in the cafeteria the first day at a new school, in the break room on the first day at a new job, or at a party when you know only the host. How much did it mean to you when someone welcomed you, introduced you to others, explained how things really worked and otherwise made you feel a part of things? Made you feel, well, less strange, and less of a stranger. And then, all the better if they stuck with you when the newness and “firsts” were over and you knew, in the best of ways, that you’d made it another step closer to truly being home.
For more information about helping these families, or others like them, through donations, tutoring or becoming a host family, contact SpellmanPTA@gmail.com.