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Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the Yale Muslim Students Association, or MSA, has been working to support Afghan refugees who’ve resettled in New Haven. 

On Nov. 12, MSA and the Yale International Relations Association held a fundraising banquet to aid Afghan refugees resettling in New Haven through their partnership with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS. The banquet, held at Dwight Hall, was the culmination of a number of fundraising campaigns by MSA, including a social media-based effort over the summer that raised $3,000 for Enabled Children and Mothers of Afghanistan. Since the banquet, the flow of funds has continued and totals more than $3,000, according to Shaezmina Khan ’23, the president of MSA and executive director of YIRA.

“I think it’s really important for Yalies, and not just those involved in these organizations, to really understand that what is happening abroad, as much as they see it in the news, has a direct impact on their life in the present moment,” Khan said.

IRIS, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Connecticut, supports refugees and other displaced people with services that help them to obtain education, employment, healthcare, legal services and housing. Zeenie Malik, a community engagement and events specialist at IRIS, described the organization’s goal as integrating refugees to help them become self-sufficient in their new homes.

Malik told the News that since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, IRIS has helped about 350 Afghan refugees resettle in Connecticut. The organization is now preparing to welcome up to 700 Afghan refugees who will be arriving at U.S. military bases and will come through IRIS in 2022, a record number for IRIS in one year.

“The need to resettle Afghan refugees is definitely there,” Malik said. “Resettlement agencies are having to step up and welcome more than they normally do.”

IRIS recently opened a second office in Hartford to supplement their main office in New Haven. Malik said that this is part of an overall expansion and growth of IRIS in preparation to respond to the large numbers they are expecting next year.

Malik added that over the course of the pandemic, IRIS provided more than $200,000 in rental assistance to refugee families who had lost jobs, and they are now feeding over 350 families who face food insecurity with weekly grocery provisions — a rise from less than 200 before COVID-19 hit.

Chris George, the executive director of IRIS for the last 15 years, and Hossna Samadi, an Afghan refugee who moved to Connecticut with her family in 2016, both spoke at the banquet. Samadi is also an IRIS ambassador and works at Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven. Alaaddin Ibrahimy, a first-year doctorate student at Yale from Afghanistan, also spoke at the event. Khan described him as the “visionary” behind the banquet and MSA’s collaboration with IRIS and Sanctuary Kitchen.

“After the fall of Afghanistan to the hand of the Taliban, I saw all those horrific images, same as others, on social media and how Afghans were desperately fleeing the country just to have a safe place to live,” Ibrahimy wrote in an email to the News. “As an Afghan, I felt it was my duty to do something so that I could help those Afghans who are leaving behind all they have got, just to have a safe place to live.”

Sanctuary Kitchen, a culinary program and service that partners with chefs who are immigrants, refugees and community volunteers, provided the food for the banquet. Sanctuary Kitchen describes its purpose as to “celebrate the culinary traditions, cultures, and stories of refugees and immigrants resettled in Connecticut.” The Kitchen served traditional Afghan food at the banquet, including mantu — beef dumplings —  and kabuli pulao — lamb pilaf — that had been prepared by Afghan immigrants and refugees.

“We believe that welcoming people to the table to share their heritage and stories is how you make authentic connections — food quite literally brings people to the table,” Quynh Tran, the program director at Sanctuary Kitchen, told the News. “We hope that by experiencing some of the food that our Afghan chefs made for the event, people who were not previously familiar with Afghan culture were able to learn a little more about it.”

According to Khan, more than 200 people wanted to sign up for the event, which had a 90 person capacity.

“Even if you didn’t come to the Afghanistan banquet or weren’t able to get in because of the RSVP limit, I’m hoping that the people who signed up thought about the fact that their donation is going towards a potential neighbor of theirs in this community,” Khan told the News. “I hope that connection was made beyond looking at refugees on TV screens or in the New York Times or the BBC or Washington Post.”

Shen-vey Lai ’24, an attendee at the banquet, said that he enjoyed the event and that he appreciated the chance to try the Afghan dishes.

“I think it’s easy to just see what’s happening in Afghanistan as a sad case, without doing anything about it,” Lai said. “It should definitely be a more prominent conversation at Yale.”

Lai is one of a number of Yale students who individually volunteer with IRIS, providing weekly after-school tutoring over Zoom to children who have resettled in New Haven.

Khan explained that her vision for MSA was to have a greater impact on both the Yale and New Haven community and she hoped YIRA would take the lead on issues related to global affairs.

“If we as an organization can do something and not just talk about Afghanistan, but to help them, then that is what we should be doing,” Khan said.

She emphasized that MSA is continuing to accept donations for IRIS at their Venmo.

The banquet was co-sponsored by over 20 undergraduate and graduate organizations at Yale, including Dwight Hall and the Schell Center for Human Rights.

MIRANDA JEYARETNAM
Miranda Jeyaretnam is the beat reporter covering the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and developments at the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS for the YDN's University desk. She was formerly the opinion editor for the Yale Daily News under the YDN Board of 2022 and wrote as a staff columnist for her opinion column 'Crossing the Aisle' in Spring 2020. From Singapore, she is a sophomore in Pierson College, majoring in English.