Woog's World: Westporters should reach out to Afghan refugees

Westport is not the real world.

On most of the planet, people do not live in homes with cathedral ceilings, swimming pools and four-car garages filled with Range Rovers. Unlike billions of fellow human beings, we go to sleep with secure roofs over heads, multiple refrigerators overflowing with food, and all the water we need.

That’s not the case just a few miles away in Bridgeport. Some of us are uncomfortable that such a needy city, with so many underserved residents, sits not far away. Others do whatever they can do help. They write checks, volunteer at Mercy Learning Center, and create opportunities like the wonderful Adam J. Lewis Academy.

The “real world” world can seem more distant. It’s easy to click away from a news story about war, chaos and refugees in a distant land we can’t find on a map, and will never visit. It’s much easier to read about the latest celebrity breakup, home décor trend or Netflix show.

But Westport also has a history of involvement beyond our borders. We’ve brought Bosnian refugees here. We’ve helped Syrian families resettle in the area. Our assistance has been financial, material and emotional. All are important.

The latest crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan. We can argue forever about the reasons for our involvement, the rationale for staying for 20 years, and the manner in which we left. But those are the privileges of a free society. They won’t solve the problem of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who quite literally fear for their lives. And who also quite literally have nowhere to go.

John McGeehan has experience with refugees. Six years ago, the Syrian crisis motivated the longtime Westporter to help lead a coalition of churches, synagogues and mosques to resettle a family in Norwalk.

Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services — a statewide network — provided much of the organizational muscle. They work with local communities to find housing with nearby public transportation. IRIS offers language training, cultural assistance, help with women’s issues, school assimilation and more.

The first year cost of about $20,000 per family comes primarily from local citizens. They donate checks, clothing and small appliances. They give rides, advice, and shoulders to lean on.

That figure for one family is daunting. But Connecticut is preparing to receive over 700 refugees in the next year — 300 of them now through November. How will we do it? With attention and care, one family at a time.

Housing costs and lack of public transportation make Westport less than ideal as a resettlement option. But as IRIS readies to welcome an Afghan family to East Norwalk, Westporters are stepping up.

McGeehan reached out to the Westport Rotary Club, whose work to improve lives around the world spans several decades, and individuals like Robin Tauck, a member of the worldwide tour company and human rights advocate. A coalition of religious institutions — United Methodist Church, Temple Israel, Greens Farms and Saugatuck Congregational, and the Religious Society of Friends, along with 15 Westport Muslim families — organized a drive for needed items.

On the weekends of September 25-26, October 2-3, 9-10 and 15-16, Greens Farms Congregational Church will accept drop-offs of (boxed and labeled) winter coats, raincoats and boots for adults, teenagers and children; school supplies and backpacks; new toiletries; cleaning and household supplies, and small appliances. Furniture and other clothing is not needed.

This volunteer effort is vital. It will change the lives of one Afghan family. Hopefully, Westporters’ involvement in this resettlement effort will ripple outward, and impact others. Fortunately, it is not the only initiative local residents are involved in.

Westport attorney Sam Leaf is helping a Connecticut man rescue his family from the Taliban. He was granted asylum here, after being kidnapped and tortured because of his ties to American companies. But his relatives are in grave danger.

Leaf and Stamford attorney Jennifer Williams are filing applications for “humanitarian” parole with the Customs and Immigration Service on behalf of many family members. They are working pro bono, but each filing fee is $575. Once the family is here, much more help will be needed. A GoFundMe page has been launched. Click on GoFundMe.com, and enter “Samuel Leaf” in the search box.

Staples High School Class of 2007 (and West Point Military Academy) graduate Sam Goodgame is helping too. He served in Afghanistan, and his fiancée is an Afghan-American. He’s working to bring the family of a West Point friend — an Afghan immigrant who became the first female Howitzer platoon leader in history — to the U.S. To contribute, click on https://givebutter.com/iFgcD3.

Three local efforts won’t solve the Afghan humanitarian crisis. But for the three families who hope for new lives in America — or, more basically, the chance to live — our town is the most important place in the world.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.