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Waveney Ann Moore: As countries erupt, Tampa Bay agencies help refugees find security and success in America

Waveney Ann Moore



The Muhammad family fled Ethiopia and resettled in Tampa in 2012. Photo courtesy Lutheran Services Florida.

Most Americans can’t imagine what it’s like to be forced to flee one’s country, leaving behind family and friends, homes and careers, to start over in an unfamiliar land.

Embarking on perilous journeys to escape conflict and persecution, refugees arrive in this and other countries with little more than the clothes on their backs and hope for a secure and peaceful life for themselves and their loved ones.

The plight of the Afghan people has come into greater focus in recent weeks. But while politicians and journalists analyze and cast blame for the chaos that’s ensued as the Taliban rampaged across the country, social service agencies and kind-hearted people across America have girded themselves for the work ahead to help Afghans uprooted from their homes.

Remember, thousands of Afghans have worked with the U.S. military as cultural advisors, interpreters and translators in Afghanistan over the years. Many qualify for Special Immigrant Visas and deserve America’s help.

Welcoming Afghan refugees is not something recent.

“In the years past, we have resettled over 40 people from Afghanistan,” said Sylvia Acevedo, senior director of Refugee & Employment Services for Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. “The population is not new to us. They are already our neighbors. There was a pause for a long period of time and we started again in recent months.”

The Clearwater-based agency has resettled six families since June, Acevedo said. “Since this most recent, fast-moving, quick-changing crisis, some folks were lucky to get out and make it to the U.S. We have another family who is not in Afghanistan. They are in another country and they will be arriving soon.”

Gulf Coast JFCS has long resettled refugees. So has Lutheran Services Florida, headquartered in Tampa. The latter agency was created to sustain the work of Lutheran congregations which had begun working together to help refugees from Cuba and Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s.

While Lutheran Services Florida has resettled Afghan refugees in the past, it has not yet received any caught up in the current humanitarian crisis, said Lourdes Mesias, statewide director for refugee and immigration services. “We’re ready to receive them and are working with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, our national volunteer agency.”

Agencies like Gulf Coast JFCS and Lutheran Services Florida are important lifelines for displaced people, who, not surprisingly, can initially find much about America strange, if not daunting. There’s a lot to learn to prepare for their new lives. It’s where the agencies come in.

“We provide comprehensive services for newly resettled individuals, temporary and long-term housing, arranging for airport pick-up, health screening at the health department,” Acevedo said. “We provide them with extensive orientation. They have lots of questions, even about the transportation system.”

There’s also grocery shopping, enrolling children in school, seeking employment and much more that must be mastered.

An interpreter is vital for the airport pick-up, Mesias said. Other details help, as well. “Sometimes we have churches donating gift baskets. If they have kids, we bring toys.”

Acevedo of Gulf Coast JFCS explained how the agency recognizes the new arrivals. Each refugee has an ID hanging from a lanyard, as well as carries a white bag with the letters “IOM” — International Organization for Migration – printed in blue. Written in Sharpie is “HIAS.”

Here’s an important aside. Lutheran Services Florida and Gulf Coast JFCS both reference the values they bring to their work. It means to me that these agencies aren’t distracted by the political, religious and ethnic conflicts that lead to humanitarian crises in the first place.

Gulf Coast JFCS bases its commitment on the principle of “Tikkun olam,” a significant value in Jewish teaching and, its website explains, “a concept defined by acts of kindness performed to repair or heal the world.”

More poignantly, the organization adds, “As an agency founded on Jewish values, it is fitting that we play a role in welcoming and helping to resettle refugees from around the world, just as we have played a significant role in supporting Holocaust survivors.”

And HIAS, whose name is marked with a Sharpie on the bags of refugees Acevedo greets at the airport, began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. The New York-headquartered organization has since expanded its work to resettle non-Jewish refugees, including those from Eastern European countries, Africa, Haiti, Vietnam, and yes, Afghanistan.

Displacement of men, women and children from their homes around the world is a growing and distressing problem.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, by the end of 2020, 82.4 million people had been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees, most of whom were Syrian. Sadly, according to the New York Times, Turkey has been forcibly rejecting Afghan asylum seekers trying to cross into the country from Iran.

Acevedo said her agency can accept 100 refugees this year, a capacity that’s been set by the State Department. She wants Americans to understand the trauma they experience.

“Nobody wants to leave their job, their school, their friends, their family. Imagine if you had to flee. They bring what they can. They look scared,” she said, speaking from the experience of welcoming refugees at the airport. “They don’t know who they are looking for. We know who we are looking for. We have a picture. “

Mesias and Acevedo both spoke of the apartments for refugees – increasingly difficult to find in the current housing market — that are furnished with donations. Certain things, such as personal hygiene items, must be bought.

The two organizations appear to work from a similar script, from showing the new arrivals how their appliances work to how to get a job. The focus is on self-sufficiency, Mesias said. “When we have sponsors, we assign a sponsor to a family. They take them grocery shopping. They go clothing shopping. Sometimes we have sponsors who assist them with learning how to drive. It’s a wholistic approach to the integration of a refugee.”

Palangwa, Mupunga, and Batatu are triplets born in the Congo. They resettled in Tampa in 2019, graduated from Hillsborough High School and are attending Brewster Technical College. Photo courtesy Lutheran Services Florida.

Once the children are enrolled in school, they participate in a Lutheran Services Florida effort that includes tutoring and homework assistance, Mesias said. The agency partners with the University of South Florida for this kindergarten through 12th grade pilot program. Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church provides funding for computers and internet service for the students, generosity that became critical when schools went to virtual learning because of the pandemic. Young adult refugees are paired with mentors.

In any event, adjustment to this new life can be challenging.

“I have to say, they face many difficulties,” Mesias acknowledged. “All the trauma they have been exposed to during the years they have been in refugee camps, limited access to education, jobs and learning skills and then coming to a new country where you don’t speak the language. Most of them go through a culture shock. It is very difficult to adjust to American culture.”

For children, it’s easier, she said. “They are the sponge. They absorb everything you tell them. They go to school and they learn the language and most of the time, they become the translators for the parents. At the same time, it becomes a little bit troublesome, translating things that are not at their level. They are resilient. They learn. They integrate.”

Hardships notwithstanding, refugees persevere, Acevedo said, adding that it’s rewarding to watch them become independent.

“All people want is to have freedom in this country, to bring their families here, education for their children and to contribute to this country that opened their arms to them,” said Mesias who is herself a Cuban refugee.

“We are contributors to the American culture. We bring our culture to enhance what America already is. I have stories of refugees that have become lawyers. We have refugees that have become engineers. They are here to succeed.” 


To help

Gulf Coast JFCS Refugee Assistance Fund,

Or contact Sue Farley, Vice President for Development,


Lutheran Services Florida,


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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Kathryn Rawson

    August 27, 2021at6:27 pm

    Thank you, Waveney Ann, for this article that explains the process new Afghan immigrants go through to get resettled.

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