SAN DIEGO — Thousands of Afghan refugees escape their homelands every day, leaving their careers, families, and belongings behind, to escape the wars in their countries, patiently waiting to enter the U.S.
In San Diego, 'Helping Empower Community Refugees,' formerly known as 'Helping El Cajon Refugees,' is a nonprofit organization made up of over 2,000 volunteers that dedicate their time and money to helping thousands of refugees start a new life in San Diego County.
Jill Gallante, who is a co-partner in the organization reflects on how the community in San Diego came together to start helping refugees in need, back in 2016.
"We would set it all up. Groceries, hygiene, everything you could think of...toys for the kid, beds, the whole nine yards," said Gallante. "Then as COVID went on, we had to change that...And then when the Taliban took over, everything really changed."
Gallante explains how volunteers are broken up into specific groups, that help with areas of essential needs for the incoming families.
"People assumed that the Afghan crisis was over because another crisis began," said Gallante. "It's heartbreaking...the State Department sent them to various states and counties, including San Diego...and we began to have a pile-up of families, almost 1,000 families staying in hotels across San Diego,"
After the impact of COVID and now the ongoing war in Ukraine, Gallante explains how they're now working with more Afghan refugees again and how they are in need of more volunteer help.
"We just don't have the numbers," said Gallante. "It takes so much manpower and energy...We had to pivot and create groups to address food groups, clothing groups, shoe groups, toy groups, and we began flooding into the hotels to help them,"
One Afghan refugee, who asked to remain anonymous, arrived in San Diego nearly five years ago. He came from Afghanistan, traveling to Dubai and LA, and then was dropped off in San Diego.
Coming to the U.S. with nothing except clothes and the knowledge in their minds, they quickly realized they had to rebuild and start over.
Their bachelor's degree in medicine and prestigious credentials in Afghanistan meant nothing here.
"I tried to pursue many professional jobs here...but was difficult," they said. "It was disappointing at first. My recommendation for refugees arriving that had a career before they came here, is they still have a chance. They can get more education, but you do have to pay out of pocket. So, that is hard and something to remember but you can get more education and start over.”
Though the transition wasn't initially what they had anticipated, with the help of the 'Helping Empower Community Refugees' organization, they were able to have a second chance at life.
They were able to attend San Diego State University and earned a bachelor's degree and they're now pursuing their master's degree.
He says he now also helps refugees through the of Afghan Community Culture Center in El Cajon.
"I now help refugees here by helping them fill out paperwork or understand what they need for their families," he said. “I’m very happy, one of my kids, they're in a good school and we’re doing good here and feel safe in the U.S."
Even though they were able to rebuild and create a life in the U.S., some of their family members are still in Afghanistan, trying to get their Visas but they're having a hard time getting out.
“It’s a hard time for them because we’re here and they’re struggling to find a way here,” he said. “Jill is one of my closest friends, we’re thankful for them all and they supported me and showed us the way,”
How to get involved
Susan Marshall Gordon is one of many volunteers that learned about Helping Empower Community Refugees through social media.
I met Susan in Coronado, where she was selling bikes to help refugee families in need. Her husband was next to a row of bikes, making sure they're good to go for the next buyer.
“We started out just donating money and goods and then using our truck for transport to pick up bikes from TREX and SD Bikes for kids and neighbors,” said Susan.
Susan and her husband Rick began collecting bikes that were donated to them to give to refugee families, which provided them with a source of transportation to the grocery store, work, or more. And the bikes that families can't use will be sold and the funds will be used to purchase supplies they can use.
All donations count.
“Naturally, it is a joy whenever we have met any of the newly arrived families, but I must say that Rick and I have loved meeting volunteers who so willingly give of their time and money," said Susan. "We have learned so much about rehabbing bicycles and are in awe of the organizational skills of the two key people, Jill Gallante and Peggy Han.”
Most volunteers like Susan and Rick discovered how to help refugees in need by following the Helping Empower Community Refugees Facebook page. Though it's a private group, it's made up of over 2,000 volunteers that would love another helping hand to add to the mix.
For San Diegans who are looking to give back, whether it's a money donation, wanting to join the Facebook group to help, or you have extra space in your home for a family, visit their Facebook here or their website at hecr.org
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