She Turns Houses into Homes for Refugees from Afghanistan

When the US finally pulled its troops from Afghanistan last summer, news feeds reported that a massive number of Afghan residents, including women’s rights activists, teachers, and those once on the payroll of Uncle Sam, were desperate to escape Taliban rule.

Only a relatively small number were allowed to enter the United States. After a thorough background check, they received COVID-19 vaccinations and immunizations against other communicable diseases and were then sent to communities throughout the country. While the majority were resettled in California, Oklahoma, and Texas, approximately 1100 became residents of New York state, establishing new lives in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and New York City. 

That’s where Ruth’s Refuge comes in. Although its efforts are restricted to the five boroughs, it is the only organization in the city specifically geared to furnishing the apartments of incoming refugees as they struggle to establish a toehold in their new communities.

The group’s Executive Director, Leah Cover, spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in late November.

Eleanor J. Bader: Ruth’s Refuge began as an explicitly Jewish project. Let’s start with its history.

Leah Cover: I grew up hearing the phrase “Never Again” over and over and it has long appalled me that the suffering of refugees does not seem to matter to a lot of lawmakers. I got involved, personally, after meeting Wendy Star at an event sponsored by HIAS in 2015. We realized that we were both part of Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE) in Brooklyn and together started CBE’s Refugee Task Force in early 2016. Both of us had been animated by the atrocities that were unfolding in Syria and we wanted to do something concrete. 

Wendy got the ball rolling and called a meeting and about 40 people came together to brainstorm ways we could help. Someone from HIAS was also at that meeting. At first, we wrote letters and met with our elected officials to urge more funding for refugee resettlement. Then, when Trump was elected, we opposed the refugee ban and began to build a coalition that extended beyond CBE. 

Another volunteer emerged as an amazing force around this time and we began working in an ad hoc way with resettlement agencies — Catholic Charities, HIAS, and the International Rescue Committee — to help set up apartments for people who were arriving. We worked quickly to meet the need and the resettlement agencies began to rely on us. At that point we did not have a storage space or funding so every time a request came in, we had to start from scratch and raise money for a U-Haul and the purchase of necessary goods. It was a huge effort each and every time.

EJB: And since then?

LC: After doing this for a while, we realized that it made sense to set up a separate organization whose sole focus would be furnishing apartments. Everyone recognized that setting up a home removes at least some of the burden a family or individual faces when they arrive so that they can focus on getting a job, learning English, and enrolling their kids in school. 

We got our non-profit 501c3 status in April 2019 and now have two part-time paid staff people. So far in 2021, we’ve furnished about 90 apartments.

EJB: How do you decide what items to provide for each household? 

LC: First, we find out the family composition and apartment size. Should we buy twin beds for the kids or will they need bunk beds because of space constraints? Our first priority is always beds, bedding, and kitchen supplies. We always buy new mattresses and bedding but other furniture is usually donated. Still, it costs us approximately $3000 to set up each apartment.

We feel really strongly about giving people a choice about what they want or like. Refugees and asylees have typically been through many traumatic experiences where they are stripped of agency so we want to give them control over their physical possessions. We want them to have a choice over what they surround themselves with and have an opportunity to say ‘I want’ or ‘I don’t want’ a particular item.   

EJB: Do you now have a storage facility for donated furniture?

LC: Yes. We have five 10 by 10 storage units. Sometimes an estate will reach out to us about furniture they want to donate; sometimes a person is redecorating and sometimes they’re moving and have stuff they can’t take with them. 

We screen every donation and only accept furniture that is in good condition. We require pictures to assess suitability. We also need the donor to transport the items to us since we do not have the resources to pick things up. We’re very low budget and rely heavily on our volunteers. 

EJB: How big is your volunteer base and what do volunteers do?

LC: Our volunteers are incredible. They help us manage our inventory since we have to keep track of everything, post photos of every item on our website, and do all the detail-oriented tasks to keep a project like this going. Some volunteers do the actual apartment set up–the heavy lifting. Others assemble furniture and still others do the lighter lifting, moving things like lamps and kitchenware. 

We have about 100 people on our volunteer list and about 20 who help out again and again.

EJB: Are any items in particular demand?

LC: Rugs are of huge cultural importance to people from Afghanistan, and we are working hard to have enough floor coverings, especially large ones, in stock. Nonetheless, we need more of everything and have been going through supplies really rapidly. This week alone we helped set up four households, one with seven members, four of them under age five!

EJB: Where are most people settling?

LC: Most are going to Queens, especially Flushing and Jamaica, where there are Afghan communities, but we’ve also assisted one family who relocated to the Bronx. Some folks already have robust connections here in the US, but many do not.

EJB: I can’t imagine the upheaval these families and individuals have experienced. Can you tell how well they’re coping?

LC: People experience trauma differently. It takes an enormous amount of effort, both emotionally and physically, to establish a new home in a strange community after so much dislocation. People process these experiences in many different ways, which change over time.  

EJB: What’s the most gratifying aspect of this work for you?

LC: It’s satisfying to meet people and see their relief in knowing they have some physical comfort and safety, but my favorite part of this work is meeting people from so many different places and with so many different perspectives. My greatest joy, however, is seeing the incredible generosity of the donor and volunteer community. It’s been heartening to see the local response, the warm welcome that people in New York City have extended to newcomers. It’s uplifting!

EJB: And on the flip side, what’s the greatest frustration?

LC: I’m the granddaughter of refugees from Ukraine and it is disappointing to see how badly our country has dealt with the refugee crisis of the past decade.  I get really angry when I see that our country has not been as welcoming as it should be. 

It was also really upsetting to see how mind-bogglingly chaotic the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was.

There are also logistical frustrations of not being able to do as much as we’d like. This, of course, is true for refugee resettlement agencies more generally. They’re struggling to do their jobs and meet the need. It’s frustrating because it does not need to be this way. Our government has the ability to support refugees and asylees. It’s a question of priorities.

EJB: What would you like to see prioritized?

LC: I’d lift the cap on the number of refugees accepted into the country. Under Trump, only 15,000 refugees were admitted annually. Biden has upped that number to 125,000 for fiscal 2022. This is still inadequate.

Another concrete thing I’d do is have Congress pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to give Afghan refugees admitted with “humanitarian parole” visas a pipeline to citizenship. I’d also reorganize our asylum system. Right now, there is a huge backlog of applications waiting to be processed; I’d further abolish immigrant detention for those fleeing persecution.

The US has the resources to accommodate those seeking refuge and asylum. What’s missing is the political will.