By Sumaiya Nasir | December 9, 2021
Uzma Popal first heard of the crisis in Afghanistan like everyone else did - in news headlines, announcing the return of American troops in August.
She was told by the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) that Albany County was expecting nearly 500 refugees within the coming year, and that half of them were Muslims.
The Muslim Donation Center is only one of many organizations dedicated to helping Afghan refugees begin their new lives in the Albany area.
The Muslim Donation Center is a subsection of the Muslim Soup Kitchen Project (MSKP), originally a student-run organization founded in 2003. Uzma Popal is the current director of MSKP and the leading figure at the head of the donation center since 2014. The organization went from being a small-scale project, helping to feed those less fortunate in Troy, NY, to becoming a national organization, reaching thousands of people around the country.
Today, MSKP’s Albany chapter consistently works in three cities, including Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, and serves at about three hundred to five hundred homeless shelters and halfway houses, according to Popal.
The donation center, first created in 2017, was not always centered around helping Afghan refugees. The Capital Region has helped many groups of people settle into the United States, including Syrians and Rohingyas. The donation center also assists anyone that meets low-income requirements, regardless if they are a refugee or not. The donation center requires that anyone that takes clothes from the center fill out low-income forms to verify and keep track of what comes in and out of the donation center, Popal said.
It is only as of August that the donation center transitioned into helping Afghan refugees specifically.
“By the time they come here [the donation center], they’ve already came through the refugee centers and did their paperwork, and shots, and whatever the process they go through, and then they come to USCRI,” Popal said. The donation center works closely with USCRI case workers to help find homes for families. According to Popal, USCRI gets only a couple days’ notice before families arrive.
In the time that refugees are with a case worker, they are able to obtain a Social Security Number, food stamps if they qualify, and other documents needed, according to Popal. Refugees typically work with a case worker for a couple of months, depending on USCRI’s availability.
“When the refugees come in, they [USCRI] contact us, their case worker brings them here, they take anything they need to start because they have, like, zero,” said Popal. “However, we have shalwar kameez, we have ethnic clothing that they won’t find anywhere else.”
“There was a female that came, but, for three weeks, maybe a couple of months, they needed to find a temporary place [for her],” said Popal. “So, they reach out to us, and we reach out to our community members. Those who have an apartment, separate from their house, that they can accommodate. We were built to help.”
MSKP has since introduced a refugee mentor program, in which Muslim community members who speak the same language as refugees are teamed up. The program is meant to create long-lasting bonds between families and to help create a sense of community between families. Families are typically teamed up depending on sizes of families and compatibility of ages and genders in children. The program involves community members from mosques located in cities surrounding Latham, including Albany, Schenectady, and Troy.
Zaina Siraj is Afghan-American, a child of Afghan refugees herself, and chose to become a mentor for a family because of her personal connection to the issue. She is a medical student through Albany Medical Center, and a huge influence in her choice was the large Afghan community in the area. As a Pashto speaker, she wanted to enhance her skills and help any Pashto-speaking patients, should they come into the hospital.
During her first month of medical school, the crisis in Afghanistan worsened, with the Taliban taking over the government, and the Albany area was seeing an influx in refugees. Siraj recalled that many physicians at the hospital told her they were using translators to communicate with refugees.
“I just realized how important it was,” said Siraj. “I felt like it was almost a responsibility for me, having this foundation in this language, knowing the culture, to at least try to do something to help these people.”
Siraj is currently working in a program called the Albany Med Commitment to Refugees and Immigrants (AMCRI) in partnership with Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE), a similar program to that of the donation centers.
“You just kind of help them with whatever they need specifically to adjust,” Siraj said. “Let's say if they need help scheduling a doctor’s appointment, but they have trouble speaking English over the phone, or maybe the whole concept of how does it work to get a specialist appointment they're not familiar with, because it depends on what type of insurance you have. So, a lot of these like tricky system things, that's something that we can help [with].”
Siraj said that the program is also helping to familiarize her with the resources available to refugees, such as where to take English classes, and job searching, which are invaluable skills to her.
“I still remember when we first met them. They almost had apprehensive looks in their faces when they saw us, because I mean if you think about it, we are another set of strangers that are saying we're here to help them adjust to life in America, which is not very easy,” said Siraj. “I don't know if they knew what to expect, but as soon as I started speaking Pashto and I said we're here to help, they immediately kind of had this almost relieved expression, and even said that they were really happy, that quote unquote ‘one of our own is here to help,’ and so that really stood out to me and kind of motivated me to keep doing this work.”
The donation center is currently in need of winter clothing, boots, non-perishable food items, and toiletries, ranging from toilet paper, feminine products, and children’s diapers. Any clothing, furniture and money donations are always appreciated, Popal said.
The donation center is located at 350 Troy Schenectady Road in the old Salvation Army building, and is always looking for volunteers to help sort clothing and food on Tuesdays and Saturdays during select hours.