Fifteen years of war and terror have forced millions of people to flee Afghanistan. The Taliban murdered over 3,500 civilians in 2015. Now, more than 2.5 million Afghans are living abroad seeking peace, freedom and happiness.
One local family that experienced death and the destruction at the hands of the Taliban has now found freedom in America, peace in the Capital District and happiness at the Bethlehem YMCA. The names are fictitious, but their story is true.
Leena and her teenage son, Adeeb, arrived in America from Afghanistan in the fall of 2015, after Leena’s husband and older son were killed by the Taliban. They came here together with Najja, the deceased son’s wife, and their three children, ages 8, 12, and 15. The two women raise their children together in low-income housing in Albany. The living conditions are very poor, but still better than what they left behind, and they are thankful for the quiet at night.
Najja works as a chambermaid at a local hotel, and Adeeb works at a hotel as a dishwasher. The family of six barely gets by on two small incomes.
Each member of the family is very talented with crafts. They make beautiful rugs, a trade they brought with them to America. They also make hats, gloves, aprons and jewelry. They hope one day to have a sewing machine. Leena is also a bread-maker.
The kids love going to school, as they did not attend school in Afghanistan. Instead of school, they worked to help support their family.
They have made great strides overcoming their biggest challenge, learning the language. Najja and Leena take night classes in English to speed up their progress. Not being able to read or communicate has made everyday life very tough. They often got off the bus at the wrong stops.
The family’s experience here could be very insular and frightening if not for the support and encouragement of Bethlehem YMCA, especially Y volunteers Diane Lykes, Brendan Mooney, Bruce Bell, Nick Isaacs and Matt Tedeschi. They have been a godsend to this family and, together with the Y staff, they have once again brought joy to people who once knew only fear. The entire Bethlehem YMCA staff has been very kind to them and made them feel welcome every time they walk through the door.
The family, particularly the children, have become frequent visitors to the Y. Barry O’Keefe, who was a lifeguard at the Bethlehem Y, has been giving the kids swimming lessons every week. The 15-year-old made so much progress that he made the swim team at his school. They also work out and play basketball at the Bethlehem Y, although their first love is soccer.
The two youngest children went to Y summer camp and had the time of their lives. So many experiences for them are new. They had never jumped in a bouncy house; they had never eaten an ice cream cone. They had never eaten in a restaurant and had someone serve them, until Y volunteers took them out to experience an American Thanksgiving dinner. When the Afghan family finished their meal, they cleared their places and took their dishes into the restaurant kitchen.
During a late summer week at camp, our Y staff noticed the two Afghan children had no food for lunch, other than a small bag of chips they shared. There was no food at home. Yet, they smiled and were happy to be safe and having fun at camp. But, a miracle was about to happen.
The CAP COM Federal Credit Union, a generous supporter of the YMCA, presented the family with a $500 gift card for food and school clothes. In addition, the kids received new backpacks filled with school supplies thanks to the backpack donation program sponsored by the Y, CAP COM and the Town of Bethlehem.
The families’ response was beyond magical. They were grateful and overwhelmed. Hugs and tears followed by everyone involved.
This amazing, inspiring story, is made possible by the work of YMCA volunteers and staff, and by the donations from our members and community supporters to the YMCA Annual Campaign.
The 2017 campaign is underway right now, and we are sincerely asking for your support. While their stories may not be a dramatic, there are many struggling families and individuals in Bethlehem that need the help provided by the YMCA.
In 2016, more than 3,017 families benefitted from membership financial assistance at the Bethlehem YMCA. Of those, 535 children received assistance for school-age childcare, and 370 kids were able to attend YMCA summer camp because of financial assistance raised during our Annual Campaign. More than 800 active older adults were able to address their chronic health challenges by participating in special wellness programs funded by donations to the campaign.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as writing that, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Thanks to everyone that supports the Bethlehem YMCA and makes each life breathe easier.
— Mark Hansen