A Fresh Start

New program helps clubs welcome refugees.

In New Jersey, the Edison Visionary Lions Club has been busy putting out welcome mats for their new neighbors, two refugee families from Afghanistan. They are the first club to participate in Lions International’s new service opportunity, Engage to Change, a pilot program co-sponsored by Welcome.US that helps clubs partner directly with a local resettlement agency in welcoming and supporting refugee families as they start anew.

Mahesh Chitnis, club president and past council chairperson, says the club worked closely with staff at Church World Service in Jersey City, securing permanent housing for the families by providing three months’ rent through a resettlement grant, and helping with groceries and furnishings.

For the first family to arrive, a family of seven, it is the first time in more than three years they are living together under one roof, or even in the same country.

“The club’s mission is to work on causes relevant to families,” says Chitnis. “We worked on getting them the support they need — not just from us, but by making them self-sufficient in our communities, making sure that they belong here.”

Many Lions in the club are immigrants and have experience working with other immigrants. They understand the logistical needs of moving to a new country and appreciate the importance of acclimating to a new culture.

After welcoming the first family, the Lions learned about extended family members, also from Afghanistan, being resettled in the Edison area. Recognizing the importance of having family nearby, they opened their arms as a co-sponsor, welcoming the two parents and three young children.

Organization was key to the Lions’ success. A team of six to 10 Lions acted as key liaisons between the refugee affiliate, the club and family, says Chitnis. Using a shared online app, club members defined roles and delegated tasks.

They also leaned on one of their biggest assets as a local Lions club — their community connections. Working with a variety of local leaders, including the city council and school board, the Lions offered a support network for the family as they set down their own roots.

“It is a collaboration,” Chitnis says. “It has been a good experience for us so far, and this is just the beginning of the story.

“The reason most of us join any of the service organizations is for that fuzzy feeling in the heart — we are doing something for someone. This is probably the peak of that feeling that any one of us would ever get.”