7 January

See What You Did: The Monthly Refugee Food Project

by Jon Katz
See What We Did

For nearly a year, I have been working to meet and understand the refugees and immigrants coming to America, it has been a difficult and sometimes frustrating process, with many ups and downs. This community functions out of sight,  and away from the public consciousness. Refugees, who be definition have lost everything, struggle very hard to adjust and acclimate, and increasingly live in some fear and concern.

Since they came with nothing, they need many things.

They do not open up easily to outsiders, especially those with cameras and blogs and questions.

The few bureaucracies and institutions that help them are understandably protective and secretive, especially in the past year.

Many have friends and relatives back in their home countries that can be in great peril if they do or say the wrong thing. Many are shy and withdrawn by culture and do not ever ask for help or call attention to themselves.

They don’t care for charity, they seek work.

I almost gave up a number of times, if I had not been an obsessive and determined reporter, I probably would have.  And if it had not been for Ali, I couldn’t  have gotten this far.

My deepening friendship with Ali (Amjad Abdulla) was the breakthrough I have been looking for. Ali is a heroic figure to me, he is a brother, he has devoted his life to these vulnerable and often needy people and their children, even as our government and many of our people have turned away and accepted the awful lie that the refugees are not good for America, don’t belong here, or are somehow dangerous.

My goal has always been to present them as real people, and show them the true spirit of America, and the Army Of Good has risen up in support of this idea. Just look what we did today.

Maria and Ali and I went to a supermarket in Albany, N.Y. and bought $259 worth of fresh fruit and diapers and soaps and sanitary napkins and clothes. We got them for Sifa. She has eight children, including twins and a new baby. Our budget was for $159, but with nine people in the family, we agreed to go over.

Each month Ali and I will choose a different refugee family in need, but we expect to see this family more than once. Sifa is a wonderful mother, gentle and loving, and her children are polite and beautiful and well cared for  shy. The children are devoted to their mother and one another.

Maria and I both loved meeting them and talking to them.

in this video, I recorded a few seconds of Ali’s thorough talk about using the things we brought. The family had never seen some of these things that Ali knew they needed. We took everything out of the bags and set them out on the table so Ali could describe each one.

Ali has been helping Sifa for months, and she is so grateful to him that she named her new son after him.

SIfa’s first husband, the father of four of her children, died in Tanzania, in the refugee camps. Her second husband, the father of her youngest children, is stranded in the refugee camp in Tanzania and is struggling to get a visa to enter the United States.

Sifa fled the Congo to escape the genocide there and spent the last 20 years of her life in a refugee camp. She has been in America for seven months. Her need, said Ali,  was for necessities – diapers, soap, deodorants, baby lotion, toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, as well as fresh fruit.

The children’s names are Matembo, Bahelanya, Ungwa, Mlondani, Ababelle,Mmunga, Asukulu, and Ali O.

Ali gently and carefully explained each of the things we bought, many of which Sifa and the kids had never seen. His manner with the family, as with the soccer and other kids at RISSE is gentle and loving. Kids adore him, and he has devoted his life to helping them.

Sifa said Ali had been a father to her children while their father was away.

Ali and I brainstormed a couple of weeks ago how to help the refugees still coming to America. We hit upon the Grocery And Necessities idea, we are doing it monthly. A drop in the bucket, but you have to start somewhere.

It was a brutally cold day here, but one of the warmest in my heart.

I am meeting a wide range of refugee and immigrant children and families now, Ali is working with the soccer team, and is also getting ready to coach the new girls basketball team. Only one of the girls at RISSE wanted to play soccer.

Maria was with me, and will be working with me and Ali on the food project. We both found the day inspiring and heartwarming, these people were so lovely and polite and appreciative. The apartment was clean and warm, and I asked the family what they need.

SIfa was shy about asking for anything, as many of the refugees are. We asked her children, and one said they needed more chairs to sit on – we could see this was so – and three of the children said they needed boots that they could wear in the cold and snow.

They have no winter shoes are boots. So I will see if I can buy the three pairs of boots that they need, I wrote down their foot sizes. One of Sifa’s daughters said her mother needed a winter jacket. I can do that. We went back out to the door and fished out a beautiful sweater Sifa loved, and a scarf. I’ll put up a separate photo.

Next Sunday, I’ve been invited to attended a festival at a local school that the refugee kids are sponsoring, their parents are coming, and they plan to show dances and sing songs from back home. I’m looking forward to meeting more of them and getting to know what they are like and what they need. I’ve got a bunch of dinner invitations and Maria and I are excited to be going to some dinners.

This is an important and gratifying project for me. These people need to be known and remembered. To abandon them is to make the refugees again, and once is enough. Maria wants to do this project with me and Ali, and I am so happy to have her. Her way with the refugee children was beautiful to see.

The lives of the refugees will touch even the hardest heart. They lost everything, suffered almost unimaginable horrors and sacrifice, they come her to work  hard and give their children betters lives.

To me nothing is more patriotic or American than supporting them, they are all immensely grateful to be in America. I thank the Army Of Good for making this possible, and I wanted you to see what you did. I’ll post a few additional photos.


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