<p>This month marks two years since the evacuation at Kabul, in which more than 120,000 Afghans fled the country after the Taliban regained control of the city. Close to 100,000 now call the United States home, but hardships followed many of them across the border.</p><p>“I think there is a reasonable amount of empathy to Afghan veterans,” said John Moses, a Chelmsford resident and veteran who served in Afghanistan. “And if they don’t have empathy, I make sure I remind them that they told me they had empathy.”</p><p>Moses, also a Chelmsford School Committee member, rallied local volunteers to form a neighborhood support team, which assists specific families in their transition to a new life in their community — in essence, it’s a “local support arm” of the federal immigration process, Moses said.</p><p>Even with designated help, Moses said there are still lapses in information for resources, funding and advocacy for refugees whose families remained overseas. There is only so much volunteers could do.</p><p>With that in mind, Moses is founding the Massachusetts Afghan Alliance, a “middleman” organization that will work between the neighborhood support teams and resettlement agencies to ensure “better outcomes for Afghan families,” he said. They intend to serve people across the 3rd Congressional District, including Chelmsford, Lowell, Townsend, Westford, Haverhill, Ashburnham and elsewhere.</p><p>“I kept finding all these different volunteer groups and they’re like, ‘We don’t know what to do. We don’t get information from resettlement agencies. We’re out of money,’” Moses said. “What I want to do is build that middle ground between that and then encourage and improve relationships and resources on the bottom and improve gaps that the resettlement agencies have.”</p><p>The International Institute of New England, a nonprofit immigrant assistance agency, will welcome an estimated 120 refugees between October 2022 and September 2023, Lowell Managing Director Caroline Rowe <a href="https://www.lowellsun.com/2023/05/14/chelmsford-high-student-afghan-refugee-awaits-reunification-with-family-after-two-years-apart/">told</a> The Sun in May. The organization resettled 236 Afghans last year, and Moses said about 3,000 Afghans refugees reside in Massachusetts.</p><p>Specific numbers, however, are hard to come by — Moses said there’s “no visibility” into where and how many Afghans there are in the area, which means they’re often unable to offer support. Through Mass. Afghan Alliance, Moses hopes to track more data around local Afghan populations.</p><p>Moses mentioned Zubair Sadat, a Chelmsford High School student who <a href="https://www.lowellsun.com/2023/05/14/chelmsford-high-student-afghan-refugee-awaits-reunification-with-family-after-two-years-apart/">fled</a> from Kabul in 2021 and is still waiting for his family to join him. Like Zubair, an unaccompanied minor, often only one or two refugees will come to the U.S. together, leaving behind large families that the resettlement agencies don't necessarily know about. That puts a burden on local advocates to help in reunification cases, as well as find appropriate accommodations.</p><p>“What I’m learning is that we don’t know how many Afghans there are in this district at all,” Moses said. “We don’t know how many reunification cases there are, and that has a really long-term downside … You have to prepare for all these people you don’t know are coming and the federal government didn’t tell you.”</p><p>It’s also about resiliency for Afghan refugees, Moses said, and he plans to provide mental health support for those coming to Massachusetts.</p><p>MAA is supported by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, described as a public policy think tank that provides Moses access to a fundraising network, research assistants and access to other fellows across the country.</p><p>U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Lowell, wrote Moses a letter of support to the Hoover Institution before he was accepted, he said.</p><p>Jorge Morales-Lopez, constituent services advisor for Trahan’s office, will serve as a congressional liaison for MAA. Since the evacuation two summers ago, Morales-Lopez wrote in an email that the organization is making “a coordinated effort” to ensure Afghans secure the safety they need.</p><p>“As any Afghan refugee will tell you, the journey doesn’t end when they finally board the plane to the United States,” Morales-Lopez wrote. “There is a significant need for local, state, federal, nonprofit, and faith-based services to support refugees and their families when they arrive here in the Commonwealth, which is why I’m thankful John and the team at Massachusetts Afghan Alliance is prioritizing wrap-around support for every step of this long, difficult process.”</p><p>Terry Symula, of Harvard, is currently assisting two large families out of a formerly vacant town building. Working with a team of volunteers, Symula — now an adviser for MAA — drives family members to appointments, helps with paying bills and advocates for their needs, most recently in court. They call her “grandmother.”</p><p>Behishta, 17, is the oldest sister in her family of nine — six girls, one boy — who live on the home’s second floor. She recently obtained her driving permit and attends English learning classes three times a week on top of school. Behishta is entering her senior year, and after graduation, she plans on joining Job Corps and later becoming a journalist.</p><p>Finding permanent residence was a challenge. Behishta and her family have lived in Germany, Philadelphia, Texas and Worcester over the last two years, but will stay in Harvard at least until the end of this upcoming school year, in June, when their lease is up.</p><p>Though her sister, Shayesta, 16, calls Harvard “jungle city,” Behishta said she feels a sense of community there. In Afghanistan, young women are not entitled to an education, but here, Behishta said she has hope for her future.</p><p>“I’m so lucky,” she said. “We don’t have this good chance in Afghanistan … They did decide who you want to marry and what age you want to marry, with who, and there’s a lot of people who are married at age 12, 15, 14, which is sad. And my mom, she told me, ‘You can decide anyone you like, you can decide,’ and that made me so happy.”</p><p>Still, the reality of life in Afghanistan hangs above their heads. Their uncle worked with Americans as a contracted employee, but since the Taliban took control, he’s been in hiding.</p><p>“He has a lot of opportunities to come here, and there’s no way to come because the Taliban don’t like him go,” Shayesta said of her uncle. “The airport is locked. There’s no way to go there.”</p><p>Resources for incoming refugees exist in silos, Symula said, so getting support is up to a number of volunteers making lots of phone calls. MAA could help with that, she said.</p><p>“It’s hard to get all the services that they’re entitled to,” Symula said. “You call MassHealth, it’s ‘Push one for Spanish.’ There’s no way to get to somebody that can help you by getting a translator … Sometimes you’re educating the people on the phone about the people that you’re supporting, because they’re not aware.”</p><p>Though Symula’s work is admirable, Moses said she is a special case. Many families are unable to receive that level of care and funding.</p><p>“We want to find better solutions,” Moses said. “It shouldn’t take an extraordinary act from a town and some people in a town.”</p>
Exactly 7,040 Americans have been killed in action fighting the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A wall in the shape and colors of the American flag made up of 7,040 dog tags — with blank ones at the end for those brave men and women who will make the ultimate sacrifice in the future — is coming to Leominster to honor them.
The wall will be viewable by the public from the afternoon of Friday, April 28 through Sunday, April 30 around the clock at the Johnny Ro Veteran’s Memorial Park on Mechanic Street.
“I could not think of a more appropriate place to hold this event. This wall really hits close to home. Not only is my brother’s name on the wall and many other people he was deployed with, but also the names that we have on our very own [remembrance walls] down at the park,” said Sarah Roberge, the sister of park namesake Jonathan “Johnny” Roberge. She is on the board of the park committee and is involved in bringing the dog tag wall there.
“We are eager to showcase events such as the dog tag wall and host events to not only to invite people to visit the park and learn about everything it stands for, but also to get the community to come together once again to memorialize” the fallen, she said.
The wall’s home base is Richmond, Virginia and was created by Veterans and Athletes United, which provides retreats and recreational opportunities for wounded veterans.
Bringing the dog tag wall to Leominster was a collaboration between the park and local nonprofit Operation Service, which focuses on veterans in the community through programs like free Christmas trees for soldiers and hosting the traveling Vietnam War wall, the Wall That Heals.
“The [park] honors all the Massachusetts heroes, the [wall] honors the United States heroes, so it makes perfect sense to have the wall at the park as it brings it all into perspective,” said Diane Beaudoin, who is on the board of directors for both Operation Service and the park.
They originally requested to host the dog tag wall three years ago but had to delay it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To sponsor the wall, they had to re-apply, pay for it to travel to Leominster, organize the logistics, and assemble volunteers, but they were determined not to give up.
“When there are opportunities to bring exhibits to our area, we jump on them. We want to be sure that our current servicemen and women and their families and our gold star families know their community is always thinking about them and respect what they do to protect our freedom. Memorials like this are a reminder to all that freedom isn’t free and the sacrifices made by our U.S. Military and their families need to be honored,” said Joe Firmani, Director of Operation Service.
On Friday, April 28, there will be a motorcycle escort for the dog tag wall from Worcester to Leominster, with biker groups Patriot Guard Riders and Leominster Harley Davidson, plus individual riders, including many veterans. Residents will come out to fly a flag and cheer on the riders as they drive through Boylston, Sterling, and Leominster.
A ceremony will take place on Saturday at 11 am with Alan Swartz singing the National Anthem, the Blue Star Mothers leading the Pledge of Allegiance, speakers, and a wreath laying.
Roberge said they would like “all generations to come and learn about such an important part of our history” and “want to draw attention to the dog tag wall as many people are not aware that such a thing exists.”
She added, “Considering how many names that are on this wall, I’m sure it is going to hit close to home with a lot of people … We want guests to take full advantage of all hours that the wall will be visiting. Visitors who may want a more private experience can take advantage of the late night hours when it tends to be quieter. And those who don’t mind a more public experience can take advantage of the daytime hours.”
Roberge also said Leominster is a patriotic city full of veterans and other residents who show support for the troops. The park also has a statue of Johnny Roberge, a tank, and other displays in honor of living and deceased veterans and gold star families, who are the relatives of those killed in action.
“It is a tremendous feeling to honor our fallen from all wars” and make sure they are never forgotten, Beaudoin said. “It gives me a sense of pride to be involved with both of these organizations as I know we do some good to just be there for all of our heroes. There is a deep sense of gratitude to those that signed that blank check to serve our country, and I feel we need to do what we can to show appreciation.”
The dog tag wall goes to Connecticut next as it continues up and down the East Coast. There is a replica wall by VAU that travels west of the Mississippi.
Find out more about the dog tag wall at vetsau.com, Operation Service at operationservice.net, and the park on Facebook @JohnnyRoPark.