Welcoming Afghan Refugees and Helping Them Heal


After a harrowing departure from their homes and a grueling 6,778-mile journey to safety, the first evacuees from Afghanistan began arriving at Joint Base McGuire-Dix Lakehurst (JBMDL) on August 25th. As Operation Allies got underway, employees of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton were there, ready to support the mission.

“When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops alerted us that JBMDL would be host to a number of Afghan guests, we quickly mobilized our CCT team to support the Operation,” said Susan Loughery, Associate Executive Director of Operations. “Right away, our Children and Family Services team began providing morale, wellness and recreational activities to the Afghans being temporarily housed there. Many of them are children and there are also a large number of pregnant women,” she noted.

“What we know about children is that allowing them to be children, to play, builds their resilience,” said Caryn Hirsch, Clinical Director for Children and Family Services. “The Afghan children are experiencing trauma and trauma responses. Providing art supplies, hula hoops, sidewalk chalk, soccer balls, and toys allows the children to play and act like children. This is a gentle reminder that their lives may have changed but they are being permitted to be children, and do not have to take care of any of the adult responsibility,” she said.

An Outpouring of Support

Our Community Services team has been collecting and delivering the outpouring of donations that are coming in from CCT supporters. Service Area Director Arnold Valentin is responsible for the logistics. “This is a huge undertaking. This is a population new to our country. They came with just the clothes on their backs. We created an Amazon Wish List that has received hundreds of donations from Catholic Charities’ supporters,” he said. “The generosity of our donors is overwhelming. They always help us meet the need and are true to our mission of serving everyone,” he said.

Loughery said monetary donations from CCT supporters and partners have been used to purchase equipment for barber shops, salons and activities for the children. They also set up a PA system so the women could listen to music and have a concert. “These are all healing activities critical to overall wellness,” she said. “The reaction of the children is amazing. They are so happy when they see us and are so thankful for the things we bring them,” said Valentin.

“We have also been providing technical support to connect the Joint Base to the local infrastructure of systems and services,” said Loughery. “So many individuals and organizations have answered the call to support Operation Allies. The Intra-agency Coordinating Council has been working seamlessly to develop collaborative solutions and systems for the guests.” Lisha Loo-Morgan, Parish Services and Volunteer Coordinator, has been working to help coordinate the hundreds of individuals in the community who have volunteered to provide services and help the evacuees. Many employees of CCT have been helping with the wellness activities. Service Area Director of Children and Family Services Mary Pettrow has been providing Trauma Informed Readiness for these employees to make certain they are ready for their assignments on the Joint Base.

Committed to the Wellness of the Guests

One challenge early in Operation Allies was ensuring the health of the guests arriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Expansion Nurses, funded under the CDC-NJ DOH initiative in conjunction with Central Jersey Family Health Consortium, have been supporting guests with public health education. The base teams have been incredibly efficient and effective in the COVID planning, resulting in a very high vaccination rate for the guests. RAPPS Pharmacy and our hospital partners RWJ Barnabas Health and Rutgers UBHC have been instrumental in helping meet critical pharmacy needs. Capital Health has made donations to the guests as well. Additionally, we are helping develop a network of legal representatives to educate and orient the evacuees to the US legal systems,” said Loughery.

She noted CCT will not be handling the immigration process for the Afghan guests. “That has been centralized through federal entities, but CCT will be helping them transition to their destinations around the country and the globe. Even though individuals and families are moving through the process of resettlement very efficiently, the Operation will be in place for quite some time because of the large number of the guests and the breadth of their needs,” she said. “Catholic Charities is proud of the role we are playing in Operation Allies,” said Loughery. “We are reaching out to these guests during a very distressing time in their lives and, hopefully, helping them process what they’ve been through and giving them hope for the future.”

FOR INFORMATION on how to help the Afghan evacuees, please visit: www.catholiccharitiestrenton.org/afghan refugees-humanitarian-crisis

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