PITTSFORD — Reddington Hall at St. Louis Parish was filled with Muslims and Christians, as well as laughter and applause, on June 10. Sixty-six Afghan children and 15 Afghan adults were feted for their academic progress in a tutoring program run by Saint’s Place, a refugee ministry operated by the parish.
Behind the laughter and applause, however, were many stories of heartache and suffering, according to Colleen Knauf, director and founder of Saint’s Place, which opened in 1998. Knauf noted that many of the women in the room enjoying the banquet were only a few years removed from having lost their husbands and sons to the civil strife that tore Afghanistan apart in the 1990s.
"The Taliban showed their power by murdering their husbands and their oldest sons," Knauf said of the Afghan women.
She added that because of their gender, many of the women received little or no education when their homeland was run by the extremist Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S. invasion that came in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. The Taliban earned America’s ire for having given refuge to such terrorists as Osama bin Laden, reputed mastermind behind the attacks, and Al Qaeda.
On June 10, however, terror and war were far from the minds of the Afghan immigrants, who had come to live in the Rochester area through the assistance of Catholic Family Center’s refugee resettlement program. The Afghan families celebrated the fact they were learning English as well as learning how to adjust to living in America. They shared traditional dishes with their American hosts, and rose to applaud Knauf, whom Afghan Zarmina Barakkhail called "mother."
"Colleen is someone like Mother Teresa to us," Barakkhail said. "Mother Teresa in India worked for the poor, and (Knauf) is someone like that."
Her notion was seconded by her husband, Abdul Barakkhail, who had to flee Afghanistan with his family because he wrote newspaper articles critical of Al Qaeda.
"This is a nice program," Abdul said of Saint’s Place. "We learned a lot of things here. We learned a lot of culture."
In recognition of that learning, the Saint’s Place tutors gave their students academic awards to mark their achievements over the year. Roohullah Maqsoodi, a 13-year-old from Henrietta, did well in science, including the science of the jump shot, according to his tutor, Alex Hoffman, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church in Geneseo. Hoffman gave Roohullah an award for his academic achievements and his athletic prowess during the second annual Academic Awards ceremony.
"He picks up things really quickly," Hoffman said of his student. Roohullah, who along with his family has resided in the United States since 2000, said he remembered when he didn’t even know how to ask to go to the restroom. Now, instead of fearing the nightmare of gunfire he experienced in his homeland, he dreams of becoming an engineer, he said.
Hoffman learned of the Saint’s Place tutoring program through his girlfriend, Caitlin Hill, an 18-year-old parishioner at St. Louis. Hill has been tutoring Spozhmai Qadiri, an 8-year-old from Irondequoit, for three years. Unlike some of the other Afghan children, Spozhmai has been able to learn English quickly since she came to America as a preschooler, Hill said.
"Once I started with her, I never really wanted to leave her," Hill said of Spozhmai. "I really got to see her grow and mature as a student."
Spozhmai said she likes Hill "because she’s very nice."
Mary Ellen Capineri, who handles media relations for Saint’s Place, gave her student, Arzoo Nasim, 14, an award for "excellence."
"She loves life, she loves learning, she loves her family …" said Capineri.
"And she loves her teacher!" Arzoo quickly added.
According to press information provided by Capineri, Saint’s Place provides tutoring every Thursday afternoon from September through June. Volunteers pick up the immigrants from their homes and drive them to the tutoring center, located at St. Louis School. After having a snack and instruction, volunteers then drive the students home.
In addition to education, Saint’s Place also assists refugees with such necessities as beds, blankets, kitchenware, clothing and school supplies. The center particularly needs bunk beds for children at this time, Capineri said, and both she and Knauf noted volunteers as well as financial and material donations, are always needed.
An ecumenical ministry, Saint’s Place is staffed by about 150 volunteers, Knauf said, and the ministry has assisted refugees from Somalia, Liberia and Cuba as well as Afghanistan.
Knauf said she and Saint’s Place volunteers are motivated by their faith, and added that she has been deeply touched in particular by the response of the Afghan refugees to Saint’s Place services. She recalled one Afghan Muslim man expressing astonishment when she visited his home to offer his family assistance.
"He said, ‘You are a Christian, why are you at my door?’" Knauf said. "He just didn’t believe the Christians would help the Muslims."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Saint’s Place, call 585/387-9888; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.SaintsPlace.org.