Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

I’d hold our community up to any when it comes to providing aid to desperate Afghan refugees. With the Defense Department now providing temporary housing to some 50,000 at multiple military bases (Fort Lee in Virginia), Arlingtonians are pitching in to share life’s basics while the new arrivals go through screenings.


Already there are signs of long-term challenges.


The Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc., just off Columbia Pike on S. Highland St., responded to a State Department’s request and joined allied groups on Sept. 1 to help with Afghan Placement and Assistance. The nonprofit has approval to resettle 3,100 individuals across its network of branch offices and affiliated organizations in 15 cities across the country.


“ECDC has been resettling Special Immigrant Visa holders from Afghanistan at several network locations for many years and is experienced in welcoming and integrating this population,” the group said.


Together with community partners, it will secure housing and necessities during the first 30-90 days as well as provide cultural orientation, assistance in education, legal guidance for changing immigration status and employment placement. It seeks donations in cash, housing options, furniture and job opportunities.


The nonprofit called Just Neighbors, using one of many pandemic-era grants from the Arlington Community Foundation, is providing legal services to low-income immigrants, asylees and refugees, with the goal of building “community among clients, staff, volunteers and the larger society.”


Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington began back in July—before the dramatic but messy evacuation from Kabul in August—providing “supportive services as part of a multi-stakeholder operation to help evacuate Afghani nationals” who aided U.S. security operations. Showing up to greet arrivals at Fort Lee, about 20 Catholic Charities staff provided assistance in translating, completing legal documents and youth activities.


Resurrection Lutheran Church collected donations from congregants to assemble kits of routine household items for delivery to refugees as they settle, delivered via the church’s broader Lutheran Social Services operation.
The emergency charity Arlington Thrive channeled $3,000 in Homeland Security Department funds to the Arlington Kabob restaurant near Hall’s Hill, which then supplied meals for 10 people daily for three weeks. Co-owner Susan Clementi, born in Kabul (though raised in London) and fluent in the Afghan language, told me, “When refugees come, we try to do what we can to help, but they must give back.”


Though eager to help the county’s philanthropic “first-responders,” Clementi is concerned about some refugees’ behavior, judging both from experiences in her restaurant and from newspaper accounts. Examples range from leaving trash behind to neglect of body hygiene to prolonged use of the welfare system. “My expectation is that they not be a burden on the U.S. So we try to educate them on what are American standards,” she said.


The “core values” in America differ from those in, say, European countries. Americans have “more of a conscience,” she says. “When somebody helps someone here, we take it forward.”


What is needed, Clementi argues, are cultural advisers. She stresses that the Afghanistan she knew long before the Taliban’s emergence, was a modern urban society, showing me 1960s photos of a place where women were educated and dressed in fashions that would blend in with any Western city. Her one message to those who escaped Afghanistan’s current crisis: “When you go into somebody’s country, you need to respect their culture.”


Traffic was halted on Langston Blvd. (formerly Lee Highway) near Halls Hill Oct. 1 as 100 Arlingtonians celebrated the road’s name change.


Elected officials, organizers and neighbors cut a ribbon dedicating the new portrait of abolitionist and black education pioneer John M. Langston. The colorful image was executed—on the wall of an enthusiastic Sport Fair– by D.C. muralist Kaliq Crosby.


Speaking outside the accompanying art exhibit at Dominion Lighting, Circuit Judge William Newman said he was “touched, as a black man,” because the name Langston Blvd. will now echo daily “as long as U.S. mail gets delivered, pizza gets delivered and GPS gives directions.”