Catholic community helps three Afghan siblings start new life in western Kentucky, far from Taliban

U.S. Army soldiers at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va., assisted Afghanistan families as they depart an evacuees’ processing center Aug. 25, 2021. (OSV News Photo by Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead

OWENSBORO, Ky. — After a harrowing escape out of Afghanistan, a young adult and his two teenage siblings have restarted their lives in Owensboro with the support of St. Stephen Cathedral and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.

Shahram, whose last name has been withheld for security reasons, has even started volunteering with Catholic Charities to help other Afghan families resettle in the local area.

“We have been so happy,” said Shahram, who arrived with his siblings in Owensboro in 2021.

A lot of credit goes to the parish community of St. Stephen Cathedral, which opened its youth house — normally utilized for youth ministry activities — to temporarily repurpose it as a home for Shahram and his siblings.

“The cathedral community was eager to assist our Afghan family from the moment we announced our plan for the youth house,” said Karina Romero, the cathedral’s director of youth and young adult ministry. “Many people reached out asking how they can donate their time or belongings so the family would have what they needed.”

Today, Shahram and his siblings have made many local friends, attend Owensboro High School and are involved in the soccer, track and bowling teams. Shahram’s sister has become a particularly talented bowler.

Last summer they were able to have the experience of many local teens: working at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari theme park in southern Indiana. The two boys had jobs as lifeguards, and their sister worked in food service.

Last semester Shahram’s brother was named junior student of the month, and this February, Shahram was named senior student of the month and also was selected to go on his high school’s trip to Washington.

While the three siblings have moved into more permanent housing, their bond with the cathedral community remains.

Reaching their safe and happy new home in Owensboro, however, was not easy or simple.

In 2021, the Taliban began targeting Afghans who supported the United States’ anti-terrorism efforts within their country after U.S. troops pulled out that year. Shahram’s father received an email from the U.S. Embassy that their family could receive help to get out of the country.

“I was 18, my brother was 16, and my sister was 15,” Shahram told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro’s diocesan newspaper. “When we left our country, we didn’t take anything. Most everyone left everything. I took my cellphone, backpack, ID card and one pair of shoes.”

Shahram’s parents sent the children ahead and told them, “We will follow behind you.”

To date, their parents have not yet gotten out.

Shahram said that in traveling through several countries, the siblings encountered many kind people who helped them, including American soldiers.

When they landed in the U.S., “the officers there checked on us, they took care of us, they protected my siblings because they were minors,” he said. “They helped us find food, drinks, restrooms.”

The siblings were asked if they wished to be resettled in any particular state. They said they had no preference, and so the city of Owensboro in western Kentucky was chosen for them. Soon they flew into the Evansville Regional Airport in Indiana, the closest airport to Owensboro.

Shahram said they were picked up by volunteers with the International Center of Kentucky, who took them to an Owensboro hotel where many other Afghan arrivals were staying.

He remembers their first day — when Susan Montalvo-Gesser arrived at the hotel to meet everyone.

Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, had been coordinating with the International Center from early on to help resettle Afghans locally.

“We met Miss Susan; she came over, she asked about us,” said Shahram. The teens got to know her a bit as she explained what she does to help people.

Montalvo-Gesser had been doing groundwork to prepare for the Afghan arrivals. Not long after the U.S. began welcoming Afghan asylum-seekers, Montalvo-Gesser had reached out to the priests in the Owensboro area about the need for housing for Afghans arriving in western Kentucky.

She requested that if anyone had extra space or rental properties, Catholic Charities invited them to provide temporary housing to these individuals and families.

Father John Thomas, the rector of St. Stephen Cathedral, shared the message with the cathedral staff, “suggesting we offer our youth house,” said Romero. “I immediately knew it was the right thing for our parish to do.”

Romero worked to transition the youth house from a meeting space into a functional living space, with the help of multiple volunteers from the parish, “who gave everything from their time to household necessities.”

After coordinating with Catholic Charities and moving in some beds and dressers, the house was ready for Shahram and his siblings.

Romero said a team of volunteers signed up to take the young people to the grocery store regularly, and one person even helped them get clothes for job interviews.

“Many of our volunteers formed a bond with the family, and it became much more than just driving them to the store,” she said.

She added that Father Thomas and the parochial vicar, Father Sinoj Pynadath, a priest of the Indian diocesan Heralds of Good News clerical missionary society, got to know the family well. They brought them food and helped them become acquainted with their new city.

Once the siblings moved to their new residence, Father Thomas and several cathedral parishioners regularly checked on them to make sure they were getting settled.

“We have continued working with Catholic Charities to make sure they have what they need in their new home,” said Romero.

Montalvo-Gesser and her team have remained dedicated as they help the three young people process their cases.

Shahram, whose case was an asylum case, recently received the good news that his asylum application had been approved. He has taken on the challenge of applying for asylum so that his siblings could use the easier immigration process called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status — which does not include the difficult, invasive asylum interview that Shahram and other asylum-seekers have endured.

Shahram is glad that he and his siblings came to Owensboro over a year ago.

“It’s a small city, it has more grass and more beautiful places than other states I have seen,” he said. “It’s the place for me!”

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