Evacuees from Afghanistan board a Boeing 777 bound for the United States from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, Aug. 28, 2021. (CNS photo/U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters, Handout via Reuters)
A new home in Kentucky
Catholic community welcomes siblings who fled Taliban
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
After a harrowing escape out of Afghanistan, a young adult and his two teenage siblings have restarted their lives in Owensboro, Ky., with the support of St. Stephen Cathedral and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Shahram, whose last name has been withheld for security reasons, has even started volunteering with Catholic Charities to help other Afghan families resettle in the local area.
“We have been so happy,” said Shahram, who arrived with his siblings in Owensboro in 2021.
A lot of credit goes to the parish community of St. Stephen Cathedral, which opened its youth house – normally utilized for youth ministry activities – to temporarily repurpose it as a home for Shahram and his siblings.
“The cathedral community was eager to assist our Afghan family from the moment we announced our plan for the youth house,” said Karina Romero, the cathedral’s director of youth and young adult ministry. “Many people reached out asking how they can donate their time or belongings so the family would have what they needed.”
Today, Shahram and his siblings have made many local friends, attend Owensboro High School and are involved in the soccer, track and bowling teams. (Shahram’s sister has become a particularly talented bowler.)
Last summer they were able to have the experience of many local teens: working at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari theme park in southern Indiana. The two boys had jobs as lifeguards, and their sister worked in food service.
Last semester Shahram’s brother was named junior student of the month, and this February, Shahram was named senior student of the month. Shahram was also selected to attend his high school’s trip to Washington, D.C., where they visited numerous historic sites such as the White House, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the many war memorials.
While the three siblings have since left the youth house to move into more permanent housing, their bond with the cathedral community remains.
“It was such a joy to get to know the family,” said Romero, adding that many cathedral parishioners have kept in contact with Shahram and his siblings to this day.
Reaching their safe and happy new home in Owensboro, however, was not easy or simple.
In 2021, the Taliban began targeting Afghans who supported the United States’ anti-terrorism efforts within their country after U.S. troops pulled out that year. Shahram’s father received an email from the United States embassy that their family could receive help to get out of the country.
“I was 18, my brother was 16, and my sister was 15,” said Shahram. “When we left our country, we didn’t take anything. Most everyone left everything. I took my cellphone, backpack, ID card, and one pair of shoes.”
Shahram’s parents sent the children ahead and told them “We will follow behind you.”
To date, their parents have not yet gotten out.
Shahram said that in traveling through several countries, the siblings encountered many kind people who helped them, including American soldiers.
When they landed in the U.S., “the officers there checked on us, they took care of us, they protected my siblings because they were minors,” he said. “They helped us find food, drinks, restrooms.”
The siblings were asked if they wished to be resettled in any particular state. They said they had no preference, and so the City of Owensboro was chosen for them. Soon they flew into the Evansville Regional Airport, the closest airport to Owensboro.
Shahram said they were picked up by volunteers with the International Center of Kentucky, who took them to an Owensboro hotel where many other Afghan arrivals were staying.
He remembers their first day – when Susan Montalvo-Gesser arrived at the hotel to meet everyone.
Montalvo-Gesser, the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, had been coordinating with the International Center from early on to help resettle Afghans locally.
“We met Miss Susan; she came over, she asked about us,” said Shahram. The teens got to know her a bit as she explained what she does to help people.
Montalvo-Gesser had been doing groundwork to prepare for the Afghan arrivals. Not long after the U.S. began welcoming Afghan asylum-seekers, Montalvo-Gesser had reached out to the priests in the Owensboro area about the need for housing for Afghans arriving in western Kentucky.
She requested that if anyone had extra space or rental properties, Catholic Charities invited them to provide temporary housing to these individuals and families.
Fr. John Thomas, the rector of St. Stephen Cathedral, shared the message with the cathedral staff, “suggesting we offer our youth house,” said Romero. “I immediately knew it was the right thing for our parish to do.”
Romero worked to transition the youth house from a meeting space into a functional living space, with the help of multiple volunteers from the parish, “who gave everything from their time to household necessities.”
After coordinating with Catholic Charities and moving in some beds and dressers, the house was ready for Shahram and his siblings.
Romero said a team of volunteers signed up to take the young people to the grocery store regularly, and one person even helped them get clothes for job interviews.
Romero herself had the “awesome role” of being the contact person for Shahram and his siblings, introducing them to volunteers, checking on them regularly, and being a resource for any questions.
“Many of our volunteers formed a bond with the family, and it became much more than just driving them to the store,” said Romero.
She added that Fr. Thomas and the parochial vicar, Fr. Sinoj Pynadath, HGN, got to know the family well, bringing them food and helping them become acquainted with their new city. Once the siblings moved to their new residence, Fr. Thomas and several cathedral parishioners regularly checked on them to make sure they were getting settled.
“We have continued working with Catholic Charities to make sure they have what they need in their new home,” said Romero.
Montalvo-Gesser and her team have remained dedicated as they help the three young people process their cases.
Shahram, whose case was an asylum case, recently received the good news that his asylum application had been approved. He has taken on the challenge of applying for asylum so that his siblings could use the easier immigration process called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status – which does not include the difficult, invasive asylum interview that Shahram and other asylum-seekers have endured.
Shahram is glad that he and his siblings came to Owensboro over a year ago.
“It’s a small city, it has more grass and more beautiful places than other states I have seen,” he said. “It’s the place for me!”
Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.