The kernel of the idea came to parishioners of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in late 2015. Stories about war-weary Middle Easterners flooding into Greece and other European countries were dominating the news. A photo of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who was discovered drowned on a Turkish beach, struck the congregation in its moral core.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do about this terrible humanitarian disaster?’ ” said Lois Herrmann, a retired State Department officer.
The answer for the Tenleytown church, whose more than 3,500 members include many government and ex-government employees, was to resettle a family seeking refuge from a war-torn corner of the world.
They raised almost $40,000, enough to pay rent for a year and cover other essentials, and filled a storage facility with furniture, toys and bedding — so many provisions, organizers said, that the church should apply to support another refugee family or two.
Someone donated a new flat-screen television. Others provided new kitchenware, linens, towels and toiletries.
Then came the Nov. 8 presidential election, and the inauguration, and the travel-ban order signed by President Trump on Friday, four days before a young Afghan couple and toddler designated for St. Columba’s were supposed to arrive.
“The situation remains in flux and is completely unpredictable,” said an email from Sunday school teacher Joanne Lin that was sent to church families Thursday, after news organizations began reporting that travelers with refugee visas, as well as citizens from certain majority-Muslim countries, might not be let into the United States.
“Please pray for this specific Afghani family. . . . And please pray for the thousands of refugees worldwide who can’t return home and are in search of protection in a world that is increasingly closing its doors.”
The next several days were a blur of emails and phone calls, with church members parsing Trump’s executive order to try to determine whether the family they sponsored would get through. The family benefited from a special refugee visa available to those who worked for the U.S. military or U.S. embassies in Iraq or Afghanistan, often as translators.
Refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere were detained at immigration stations or barred from boarding U.S.-bound flights starting Saturday, and lawyers and protesters flooded major U.S. airports, including Dulles International, where the family sponsored by St. Columba’s was expected in just three days.
On Sunday, in the main nave of the church during the 9 a.m. service, some of the 70 members of the Refugee Response Team received a special blessing. Two parishioners read scripture that seemed eerily appropriate: Beatitudes, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and Micah 6: 1-8.
“And what does the Lord require of you?” the Old Testament passage says. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
In her sermon, the Rev. Amy Molina-Moore called the readings “a love letter from Jesus. A wink from God. A full-body embrace from the Holy Spirit.”
“I am heartsick,” she said, speaking of refugees stranded abroad and at U.S. airports. “This is not the America I recognize. This is not the dream that Martin [Luther King Jr.] spoke of. And this certainly is not the way of Jesus the Christ.”
The mood brightened a few minutes later when Rector Ledlie I. Laughlin said that as far as church officials knew, the Afghan family was still headed their way. More than 100 congregants broke into smiles and applauded.
At the back of the church, the refugee team huddled. They agreed to find a temporary home for the family, probably with a fellow parishioner. They had decided days earlier that the situation was too uncertain to sign their previously agreed-on apartment lease.
Jim Losey, co-chair of the committee, repeated something he’d been told by Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, which resettled 1,040 refugees in the area in 2016, and had connected this family with the church: “Don’t believe they’re here safely until they’ve cleared customs and are in your car.”
“It’s never certain, even in the best of times,” Losey warned. “We’re waiting.”
“And praying,” added Deacon Jean Ann Wright, the other co-chair.
“And preparing,” Herrmann said.
Lutheran Social Services has paired at least five Washington-area congregations with refugee families that are supposed to arrive by late February, spokeswoman Autumn Orme said this week. At Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, more than 50 volunteers have gathered furniture, food and clothes for a family of eight Syrians. Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia, Md., and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., are eagerly awaiting families as well. It remains unclear whether the travel ban will affect their cases.
On Monday night, a couple of volunteers went to a supermarket to stock the refrigerator of the grandparent suite of a parishioner’s home in Northwest Washington. Their refugee family was supposed to have left Kabul by now, en route to Germany, then on to Dulles. But no one knew for sure.
On Tuesday morning, a parishioner dropped off a portable stroller and a car seat, to be installed in Losey’s car, as well as disposable diapers, baby wipes and a couple of changes of toddler-size clothing. Then Losey and Wright headed for the airport, where they stood in the international arrivals hall with a luggage cart, a colorful stuffed toy and a welcome poster bearing the family’s name.
Joined by St. Columba’s parishioner LeRoy Walters, they waited among about 20 onlookers — lawyers and advocates offering free assistance, and demonstrators eager to show they opposed Trump’s order.
“Let them in,” read a poster in blue block letters, held aloft by a child in glasses and decorated with a hand-drawn American flag. “Our diversity is our strength,” said another, this one in purple lettering. ‘We welcome refugees.”
Hours passed. The flight, Lufthansa 9290, landed. Passengers streamed out of customs, past the signs and the free lawyers. But still, the church’s refugee family did not appear.
Two young Afghan men eventually approached Losey, Wright and Walters. One introduced himself as Wajid, the 24-year-old brother of the woman the St. Columba’s group was expecting.
Wajid had arrived in the United States on Jan. 5, on a similar refugee visa. Another brother was expected to arrive in February. They and their brother-in-law had worked as translators for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Wajid explained. He asked that their last name not be published, to protect family members still in Afghanistan from retaliation.
Wajid, who said he was resettled by a Virginia chapter of Lutheran Social Services, had rented a house for the entire family — in Springfield, Va., a 40-minute drive from St. Columba’s.
“In Afghanistan, brothers, sisters, mothers, children — it doesn’t matter. Everyone lives together,” he explained later in an interview. “Family should be together.”
The delegation from St. Columba’s looked stunned. This was the first time they had heard that their refugee family had relatives on American soil.
After much discussion, they and Wajid agreed that if the new arrivals made it through immigration, it would be up to them to decide whether to go back to Washington with the church group or stay in Northern Virgina.
It was after 7:30 p.m. when another cluster of passengers emerged from the secure area. A tall, dark-haired man wearily pushed a packed luggage cart, and a woman, wearing a paisley headscarf, carried a very tired-looking child.
Wajid leapt to his feet and dashed forward, grabbing the man’s hand, hugging the woman tightly and patting the baby’s cheek.
Then more discussion, aided by a translator, lasting about 30 minutes.
In the end, the newly arrived couple decided to go with Wajid. They would reconnect with the church group later in the week to discuss where they would settle.
With handshakes all around, they parted; the Afghans to Springfield and the church group back to Washington, an empty baby seat still in their car.
“If they change their minds tomorrow, they’re still welcome. If not, we’ll immediately apply for another family,” Losey said before leaving the airport.
“We’re still committed to sponsoring a family,” Wright agreed. “At the end of the day, we are going to get who God sends us.”
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.