Georgia community acts quickly to assist arriving refugees
By Leslie Farrell
When the Johns Creek, Georgia, Baha’i community learned in late September that more than 100 Afghan refugees were headed their way to settle, they quickly put out an urgent call for aid and began organizing a citywide relief effort.
The resulting two-week project collected donations of needed goods from dozens of families and charitable groups, giving them to Atlanta’s affiliate of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for distribution to the 110 refugee families who settled there. The prayer-filled effort resulted in new friendships and commitments of continued service.
“It was a lot of fun. And very touching, very heartwarming,” says Joe Ferguson, one of the Baha’i volunteers. “It did my heart good to see so many people were so altruistic.”
Baha’is in the area had been inspired by a 2018 letter from the Universal House of Justice, global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, that mentions assisting refugees as an important socioeconomic activity. On learning the city would soon be home to people who had fled Afghanistan under harrowing conditions, with almost no possessions, they felt the need to help.
The local Baha’i community’s governing council, the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Johns Creek, wanted to learn more, so it contacted the IRC, a nonprofit refugee settlement organization. Over the years, as it happens, the IRC has helped many Baha’is fleeing persecution in Iran.
The IRC provided a list of items the Afghan refugees desperately needed. Upon communicating those needs, Baha’is discovered many people — not only residents but also charitable organizations, and even the mayor — who were eager to donate those goods.
The biggest challenge was the timing, says Sahar Samimi, one of the organizers. “We wanted to be done in a timely manner, before the refugees arrived in the city, and there wasn’t much time,” she says. So they sought systematic ways to spread the word. For instance, “several friends living in various subdivisions engaged with their homeowners associations and invited their neighbors to participate,” Samimi says.
Soheil Zebarjadi, another organizer, says one of the first donations he received was from his homeowners association’s president. “Early in the morning he knocked on our door; it was very thoughtful.” Another neighbor brought donations three separate times, he says.
Additionally, city officials readily posted an announcement on the city’s website. One couple noticed the announcement and brought a bag of contributions to the Baha’i Center, where they were warmly welcomed as friends, Samimi adds.
Ferguson wanted to do more than donate, so he contacted a member of the Charity Guild, who was delighted to help. About 20 Charity Guild members brought goods to Ferguson’s home and he took them to the local Baha’i Center.
On the appointed collection day of Oct. 10, the Johns Creek Baha’i Center quickly filled with donations brought by 66 families: towels, baby wipes, laundry detergent, toilet paper, and other toiletries, as well as brand-new strollers, cookware, backpacks, car seats and sheets, Samimi says. A number of young people were among volunteers who received and sorted the donations.
As people brought donations to the Baha’i Center, organizers suggested that they pause and pray together. At least eight such prayer gatherings took place over the course of the day.
And many Baha’is participating were elated to greet each other in person after having seen each other only on internet videoconferences during the pandemic.
Along with the donated goods was a letter in Persian welcoming the Afghans to the United States, which Zebarjadi wrote for the occasion. It expressed that it must have been difficult to leave their beloved home country under such conditions and offered encouragement, with hope that the new residents would have bright futures and would be happy to have migrated to the United States.
“I said I was in your condition 43 years ago. But with hard work, trustworthiness and effort, my wife and I succeeded, and we are happy we made this move,” Zebarjadi says. “I felt that when they come to this country, at the outset, they may not have many people who speak their language, and receiving a heartwarming letter may give them some comfort and hope from someone who has been in their situation.” The letter ended with a Baha’i prayer by `Abdu’l-Baha for aid and assistance.
IRC staff was moved by the letter’s contents, Zebarjadi says, and included copies with the goods distributed to the Afghans who settled in local apartments.
IRC representatives noted that the Baha’is were the first group to offer assistance. They also said they were amazed by the support the initiative received, and were grateful for the relationship that has been established, Samimi shares.
Several volunteers have registered on IRC’s website to provide service to assist the refugees in different roles. Zebarjadi says he has offered to help with translation, transportation and any business-related matters.
“The Baha’is of Johns Creek are planning to hold and sponsor as many service projects as possible to create bonds of friendship and love with the city and its residents,” Samimi says. Her advice for others planning such an endeavor? “Just follow ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s footsteps in performing acts of service.”