Joint Efforts Turn Refugees into Neighbors


Seven months have passed since the first refugees fleeing Afghanistan arrived in the United States. Operation Allies Welcome, the first phase of the U.S. military’s efforts to house and relocate the Afghan guests, has wound down in New Jersey. Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who supported our efforts to welcome and sustain the 13,000 refugees during a traumatic and trying period in their lives.

“We were on the ground before day one,” said Associate Executive Director of Operations Susan Loughery. “When Bill Canny called, we got right to work.” Canny is the Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “Our staff were right there when the planes landed with toys, crafts and art supplies for the children,” she said. In the early days, as the Afghan guests were acclimating to life in Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, CCT staff supported the USCCB’s mission of providing Morale, Wellness and Recreation (MWR). “Once USCCB was able to get its staff on site to take over MWR activities, we pivoted to support the guests with practical aspects of resettlement,” said Loughery.

Creating Partnerships

Three women, all smiling, stand facing the camera. An American flag hands in the background.

Assistant Executive Director Susan Loughery (center) worked closely with US Air Force Majors Althea Ellis-Jones and Roxanne Nicholas, both registered nurses, the leaders of the Infant and Pediatric Workgroup for Task Force Liberty.

“We secured space and worked with local partners to set up a computer lab, provide vocational training and provide educational webinars,” said Loughery. “We worked closely with the NJ State Police’s Muslim Officers’ Society to offer driver education classes. We were also pleased to partner with the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine’s faculty to help the guests in medical professions learn how to establish their credentials so they can practice medicine here.” Loughery said CCT nursing students worked with the Surgeon General’s team providing nursing support. “We were able to engage the next generation of our workforce in caring for the most vulnerable in the community,” she said.

Loughery said the network of state and local government agencies, faith-based organizations and businesses that came together to provide support to the Afghan guests in their time of need was vast. The offices of U.S. Congressmen Andy Kim and Chris Smith, the NJ Departments of Health, Human Services and Children and Family Services and the Center for FaithJustice all jumped in to provide support. She noted RWJ Barnabas and Rapps Pharmacy contributed medical supplies.

Contributions from the Community

“The response from our donors and the parishes has been truly heartwarming,” said Jenn Leip, Interim Director of Development and Marketing. “Since August, we have collected more than $100,000 in donations earmarked specifically to support the refugees. That funding was used to create recreational centers, theaters, barber shops and salons. It was also used to fund specific medical needs, like glasses and wheelchairs,” she said. In addition to monetary gifts, the community rallied with donations of clothes, games, toys and arts & craft supplies. “We set up a wish list on Amazon and thousands of donations were delivered right to the Joint Base. A steady stream of contributions came in to our offices as well and were delivered weekly by Community Service Area Director Arnold Valentin and his team,” she said. “Many of the guests fled with just the clothes on their backs and it was gratifying to see such an overwhelming response to meet their basic needs.”

“Many of the guests were women and children,” said Loughery. “And there were also many pregnant women among the guests. We knew we needed to get baby supplies to ensure the newborn guests got a good start in life.” Board of Trustees member John Kuchinski and his wife Donna were instrumental in conducting Operation Babies Welcome, a drive that secured a truckload full of bassinets for safe sleeping, strollers and other infant necessities.

Staff members stepping up

“We could not have accomplished all we did for the Afghan guests without the emphatic and enthusiastic response we received from the employees of Catholic Charities,” said Loughery. Service Area Director of Children and Family Services Mary Pettrow and Service Area Clinical Director of Children and Family Services Caryn Hirsch helped the Joint Base team problem solve and helped guests connect to the NJ Department of Children and Families infrastructure. Ada Orsorio provided a steady presence at the Community Resource and Resiliency Center (CRRC) and so many from the Providence House Domestic Violence Services, CAS and Children and Family Services teams volunteered to take shifts to provide comfort and assistance to the guests.

Additionally, the NJ Hope and Healing team were regular visitors to provide support. Chief Nurse Executive Lisa Merritt and her nursing staff supported the Navy medical teams.

Approximately 500 of the Afghan guests are resettling in New Jersey. The others have been relocated through resettlement centers around the country. Loughery noted that CCT will be actively involved in supporting the guests who remain in the state as they adjust to life here. “We will be working with the network of partners we created during Operation Allies Welcome to continue to support our new neighbors with information, vocational training and access to healthcare. We want to help them along their journeys and let them know the spirit of welcome remains strong.”

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