Michigan neighborhood welcomes Afghan refugee family


The group of neighbors at gathered at the airport to meet the Afghan family. (courtesy Joelle Williams)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids neighborhood is hoping to make one Afghan family feel a little more at home after having to leave everything behind.

“To imagine this family coming with no neighbors, no community, no family here and they don’t know the language or the culture, how much more do they need neighbors?” Peri Den Dulk said.

Den Dulk’s family is one of the 11 households helping the Afghan family settle in to their new life.

“We’re helping them feel welcome with just really simple gestures,” she said. “Bringing food, or taking them to the grocery store, helping them buy clothes.”

The group of neighbors introduced the family to Kenwood’s Super Green Market, which sells an assortment of international foods and groceries.

They accompanied the family to the store, helping them navigate the cultural divide.

“So if you went to a market in Afghanistan, you might negotiate prices,” Den Dulk said. “Helping the family know what the cultural norm is in the United States compared to what they are used to is really important to helping them assimilate to our culture here.”

Another neighbor in the group, Laura Hofman-Watrous, said helping the family has given her a new appreciation for things often taken for granted.

“I got to drive the family to an appointment, and they were explaining to me that in Afghanistan there are no seat belts, stoplights, car seats,” Hofman-Watrous said

The idea to help an Afghan family started with Joelle Williams.

“We want to be a community that welcomes new neighbors,” Williams said. “They might not physically — and probably won’t — be in our neighborhood, but they are in our community.”

After talking with her neighbors, Williams reached out to the resettlement agency, Bethany Christian Services. From there, they were given a list of the family’s needs.

“We didn’t know anything about the family, so they gave us a list of supplies we would need,” Williams said. “We started collecting couches and bedding and mattresses.”

Soon enough, they all gathered at the airport to greet the family.

“It became real at the airport, watching them come down that exit hallway from their flight and seeing mom and dad and five little kids,” Williams said.

While the language and cultural barriers can be daunting, she says the connection is genuine.

Participants are “smiling a lot and using hand signals and translators to get to know our family,” Williams said.

Their kids have also helped welcome the family, bonding over sports and playing outside.

“They have four young boys and they are ready to go out and play and our kids want to go play soccer and basketball with them,” Den Dulk said.

As their journey and relationships continue to grow, the neighbors look forward to learning from one another, embracing the Afghan family’s own cultures and traditions.

“They have so much strength and so many assets and things we have yet to be able to know and understand, so the opportunity to get to know them and learn from them, I look forward to that,” Hofman-Watrous said.

The group of neighbors wanted to share their story in hopes of inspiring others to help welcome other refugee families.

“If you can get a group of families together, it’s a huge learning experience and a huge privilege to get to do something like this,” Becky Kuiper said.

Anyone interested in sponsoring refugee families or would like to learn more about other ways to show support can go to Bethany.org.

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