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Letter: Rhode Island’s history of refugee mutual aid continues

To the Editor:

I commend Alissa Simon ’25 and The Herald for the Oct. 6 column concerning the expected arrival of Afghans in Rhode Island. The article points out our state’s record of receptiveness and the complications that inevitably arise from cultural and linguistic adjustments facing new arrivals. It also describes the jury-rigged structures that try to enable their transition. Happily, we have a history here of mutual effort working out to the advantage of the community and the refugees.

A hundred years ago, Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island was a new mutual aid entity responding to fallout from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. It helped refugees from the eastern Mediterranean seeking a home here with both their immediate needs of food and shelter and also with learning the language and cultural expectations of their new environment. These were essential for their rapid entry into the workforce and to achieve self-sufficiency. In later decades, Dorcas International facilitated the arrival to our state of those fleeing the rise of Nazism and World War II, the Vietnam War and its aftermath and, more recently, Syria’s turmoil.

Now, the 20-year American involvement in Afghanistan has ended, but its effects are still felt in the forced abandonment of their country by tens of thousands of Afghans upon whom we deeply depended. Those Afghan allies of ours and their endangered families are rightly being given sanctuary after their decades-long service to U.S. interests. As have other refugees, they will enrich and energize our community.


The column is correct in pointing out that in our system, national, state and municipal governments, individually and collectively, are inadequate to meet the challenge of supporting refugees’ transitions. However, there was heartening news in recent days when Congress provided significant financial support for Afghan resettlement in the continuing resolution to keep our government open. Dorcas International and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence are expecting approximately 250 Afghans to arrive in the coming months. These organizations will provide their traditional help with immediate concerns such as health matters, lodging and modest survival needs, and then support the next level of adjustment: learning English and preparing for education or employment. But as previous experience has shown, many others contribute to mutual aid and give new arrivals a helping hand. These include congregations, individuals, families and now refugee citizens who are eager to pay it forward with their special insights. There may well be roles for elements of Brown University as well in this enriching work.

Bill Twaddell ’63

Former Interim Director, Dorcas International


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