Afghan evacuees find refuge at Steele Hill

August 19, 2022

Afghan evacuees find refuge at Steele Hill


SANBORNTON — Five Afghan men who work in housekeeping, laundry or landscaping at Steele Hill Resort have a name for Kathy van Engelen, the Laconia woman who helps them each week with shopping, banking, learning English and learning to drive.

They call her “teacher,” a title of honor. Then they say something that makes her blink away her tears: “You are our American Mom.”

“Thank you, teacher, so much,” said Atal, who works on Steele Hill’s landscaping and maintenance crew, tackling seasonal and daily jobs independently or with the American crew. “I’m working outside – painting,” he said Wednesday, beaming, when the group of Afghans gathered at the start of their day.

“You take us to grocery stores and Walmart and help me send money to my family. Before we don’t even know how to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello,’” Hekmatullah said, with help from a friend who translated his Pashto words into English. “You open our heart because you are a mom to us and do so much for us.”

It’s been one year this week since Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to Taliban control and 76,000 evacuees left their native country. The past 12 months have been a heady transition for these five men, who helped the U.S. effort, assisting American soldiers, before they made a choice: leave their country and families, or be killed.

In the past year, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services has helped relocate and support roughly 11,000 Afghan evacuees across the U.S. and “take the first steps toward self-sufficiency,” said LIRS Director Krish Vignaraja.

Ascentria Care Alliance, formerly Lutheran Social Services of New England, has resettled 557 Afghans throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire, according to its website. Since October 2021, Ascentria has brought 101 Afghans to the Granite State, settling them with neighborhood support teams in Keene, Exeter, Portsmouth and Nashua, said Vijay Bhujel, the organization’s resettlement and integration coordinator for New Hampshire. Bhujel said about 50 have since moved to other states, mainly Texas, where jobs are plentiful and housing is less expensive and more available.

“Resettlement is not an easy job,” Bhujel said. “There are so many job opportunities for people, but housing is the problem. Everywhere in the U.S., housing is a problem.”

The five men in Sanbornton, most of whom appear to be in their 30s, are part of a cohort of 11 who came to Steele Hill roughly a year ago, after arriving in Virginia from Afghanistan in September 2021. 

As part of a joint refugee support effort by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and St. James Episcopal Church in Laconia, van Engelen serves as the group’s primary guide and mentor for getting established in a foreign culture and country that offers safety, newfound opportunities for independence, and a fresh start.

“We have a history of helping to resettle and minister to new Americans,” said Lee Krueckeberg, who coordinates outreach for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. “We as a faith community have a mission” to live out Christ’s message. “It’s in giving that we receive.”

“This is one of the most rewarding and meaningful things I’ve ever done,” said van Engelen, a retired guidance counselor and special education teacher, who helps the Afghans at Steele Hill move toward citizenship and cultural and language competence, while also being a friend. “My role has become more of a social worker/case manager/English teacher,” she said. “These guys are here because of how they helped us. They’ve had to sacrifice a great deal. They say all the time, ‘America good! America good!’”   

Last year, Steele Hill Resort, which employed and housed Bhutanese refugees over a decade ago, reached out to Ascentria, offering employment and a place for the Afghan newcomers to live.

They have been crucial help to Steele Hill, at a time when hospitality workers are hard to find and retain.

“They have found a ready community within us and with us,” said Keil Ackerson, Steele Hill Resort’s human resources director .“They are 100% dedicated to the work we’ve offered them. We couldn’t be more happy and grateful. They make it well known that their motivation is their families back home. They want stable and consistent work as much as possible.”

“They want to get their families here and integrate into the community and become functioning citizens,” said Rob Robillard, operations manager at Steele Hill.

Their workday begins at between 8:30 and 9 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

“They pretty much do a little bit of everything. They’re nice, they’re hard workers and they’ve very approachable. They say, ‘Hi’ and ‘How are you doing?’ You give them minimal directions and they’re right on it,” said Peter Boissonnault, a janitor at Steele Hill who works with the Afghan men.

After eight hours, three of them head to a second job in Concord at Pitco, which manufactures frialators. Theirs is a 14-hour workday.

Their immediate challenges remain acquiring green cards and documents that will allow them to stay permanently, and bring their families here. Their long term goals include speaking English well enough to get good, remunerative lasting work, and housing they can afford to buy.

Sometimes their talk turns to those they left behind, what Afghanistan is like now, and how it felt to flee, knowing they can never return.

“If they did, terrible things would happen to them,” said van Englen. “They would be regarded as traitors.”

“Taliban was problem,” said Hekmatullah, one of only two Afghans at Steele Hill who are literate in their native language. This enables him to view English words beside the Pashto in language workbooks and translation phone apps.

When asked what he likes best about America, Hekmatullah gave a thumbs up and smiles. “Market Basket, Walmart, TD Bank – good!”

An Afghan friend in another state listening by cell phone translated Hekmatullah’s Pashto into English: “The best part is here there is nobody to bother you, nobody to hurt you. Here there is freedom. Nobody can tell you what to do. The problem is, I don’t have my green card. My wife, my kids, my dad — they are not here. They [the Taliban] can hurt my family, my wife, my dad. I’m going to try to learn English better so I can do business and make money.”

On Wednesday van Engelen opened a bag of supplies she purchased at Dollar Tree, and held up sacks of cough drops and bottles of cleaning spray and dish liquid for the men to take back to their home on Steele Hill grounds. They each pay $35 a week to live in housing for seasonal workers.

Van Engelen’s husband loaded Google Translator into his wife’s cell phone and found English-Pashto beginning language books for them to complete as a team.

“They have been to my house three times for dinner,” van Engelen said. “It’s amazing how you can communicate without words. With gestures, you can make yourself known.”

Their respect for her is apparent, she said. When she takes the men on outings, “I don’t lift anything. I don’t open the door. They throw open the door and pull out a chair and say, ‘Teacher, sit.’”

The men recently pooled their earnings to buy a car and pay a driver as needed. Van Engelen helps the three who don’t have driver licenses by translating the New Hampshire’s driver education manual. Translators through the NH Division of Motor Vehicles will translate the licensing exam into Pashto.

When the men expressed interest in going fishing, New Hampshire Fish and Game expedited fishing licenses, van Engelen said, and a fellow church member took the group out on Lake Winnipesaukee in a boat.

Stored in her phone are photos of the men’s wives and children, including babies and toddlers, who the men hope to bring to the U.S. as soon as possible. Van Engelen said she has learned from them what life in Afghanistan is currently like under Taliban control, and why the mens’ worries are mounting. There are ongoing reports of widespread starvation, with infants and children crowding hospitals across the country, and no one feels safe, van Engelen said. “They can be walking down the street and suddenly be beaten up. The brother of one of these guys was thrown in jail. To get him out, [the family] had to give them their car.”

Although refugees, asylum seekers and evacuees are accurate descriptions, the men are technically classified by the U.S. government as humanitarian parolees, a designation that allows them to stay here for two years. The question is, what will happen in September 2023, when deportation is possible?

A bill currently before Congress, the Afghan Adjustment Act, would expedite and streamline green card acquisition and pathways toward citizenship, including vetting, for Afghans who have come here through Operation Allies Refuge, including these men at Steele Hill.  

Without this, they remain in “legal limbo,” said Susannah Cunningham, who leads Congressional affairs for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Needed are “meaningful, lasting protections for Afghans who made it to safety in the U.S.”

Van Engelen said she hopes readers will contact their U.S. senators and representatives to indicate support for the Afghan Adjustment Act — House Bill 8685 and Senate Bill 4787.

“Some of them think, they’re here, they’re safe. If they go back, it will be a death sentence,” van Engelen said.

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