By JEFF CLEMETSON
When Alvarado Estates resident Peggy Han joined Helping El Cajon Refugees in 2019, the group was busy helping resettle around two or three Afghan families a month. That pace of resettlement dramatically increased once the U.S. began its final withdraw of combat operations in the country.
For Han, the sudden whirlwind of work to help the Afghans was immediate. When the refugees began arriving around the middle of August, one of the admins on the group’s Facebook page — the main communication hub for the group — was sick and another was out of country, so Han stepped up to help the remaining admin Jill Galante in organizing the refugee relief effort.
To handle the extraordinary workload, Helping El Cajon Refugees was divided into teams: a grocery shopping team; a truck and transport team; an Afghan-American local resident team to aid refugees who cannot speak English; a team that sets up apartments; a fundraising team; a team to sort donations; and an outreach team.
“Our membership increased from 604, I still remember it was 604, I took a picture, to now 2,100 and we actually put a stop on the membership. We’re currently not accepting anyone because we simply do not have the manpower to manage the site,” Han said.
In addition to the sudden rush of people wanting to become members of the group and help the incoming Afghan families, donations were also flooding in — which was a both a benefit and a problem. The influx of donations made supplying the families easier, but because there were people donating who were unfamiliar with the group, a lot of donations were items in need of repair and not of a ready-to-use quality that Helping El Cajon Refugees provides.
“Yes, we want donations but these people are not homeless, a lot of them are highly-educated people — they were doctors, lawyers, people with high degrees so they speak English, they helped U.S. military. The ones who don’t speak English, they were the cook or something; they all have a special immigration visa because they used to help U.S. military,” Han said. “We told people, ‘If you won’t give this item to your best friend, don’t give it to us.’”
Thankfully, Han said, the group does have many of the basic items a family needs such as clothes, toiletries, furniture, etc. Han shared one recent example of how the group’s efforts help arriving refugees. A family of three, including a baby, wound up on the wrong plane and arrived in San Diego instead of Virginia “They don’t have anything. They don’t even have their little luggage. So we bring clothes to them right away,” Han said. “They already go through so much traumatic events, we don’t want to be there, asking through translators, ‘What do you need?’ We know what they need. They need basics.”
Han added that a motto that fellow admin Galante tells volunteers that basics for a refugee are a place for a “warm shower, a nice sleep, and wake up to have a nice breakfast.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do for them,” Han said.
What Helping El Cajon Refugees does not do is the work of resettlement agencies — processing visas, providing food stamps, helping them acquire access to healthcare. “When they come to United States, every family member gets $1,150. It’s called resettlement money, so it depends on the size of your family. And they set up an empty apartment,” Han said. “If the resettlement agency has to buy things for them, they unfortunately have to use the family’s resettlement money.”
Alleviating that financial burden on the refugees is the primary goal and reason Helping El Cajon Refugees founder Katie Cavallo Rholl started the group. The focus of the work has been and mostly remain gathering enough donated items to furnish apartments for incoming refugee families.
With the latest surge of refugees, that mission has broadened a bit and also become more focused. Monetary donations, partnering with like-minded groups such as Second Families, seeking out sponsors, negotiating for discounts on large purchase orders have now become part of the plan to adequately supply the refugee families. The group also has an Amazon wish list for its most direly needed items, the top items being beds and mattresses.
“We have to make a lot of bunk beds,” Han said, and described one home the group was setting up — a 700 square-foot, two-bedroom house in Lakeside. “It’s for a family of seven — mom and dad and five kids, four girls and one boy.”
The sleeping arrangement will require five beds — the four girls in two bunk beds in one bedroom, parents in the other on queen-size bed, and a twin bed for the boy in an area off to the side of the living room.
Han pointed out that, the five beds and six mattresses needed by the family going to Lakeside is just a drop in the bucket for what’s to come.
“We think we’re going to get about 10 families a week. The wave is coming and right now we’re doing three to four hours per family. Last week we set up four,” she said. “One agency told [us] ‘we are expecting 800 families coming by the end of the year’ — and that’s just one agency. We’re working with four agencies.”
To provide for the incoming refugees, Han said the community should help in any way they can, especially in helping find reasonable housing and employment.
“I went to buy a fridge and I was talking to the [shop owner] on Adams Avenue and he gave me his business card and said, ‘I will hire one person to help me.’ So it really is those local people helping each other, helping their neighbors.”
Other ways neighbors have stepped up, Han said, include a woman who paid for three months rent at a storage facility; a resident of Alvarado Estates storing items in a spot that once stored a boat; and even children creating welcoming cards and signs for the refugees.
“A girl one time — they couldn’t find a picture — she drew ‘home’ on a piece of rock and put it outside of their apartment and that [refugee] dad said he felt like this was their home,” she said. “So everybody can help if they want to.”
For more information about Helping El Cajon Refugees, visit facebook.com/groups/HelpingElCajonRefugees.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.