Channeling Grief Into Service: A Personal Reflection on 9/11

Written by Kristyn Peck, LSSNCA CEO

It was twenty years ago tomorrow that I arrived at Capital News Service’s office at the National Press Club and watched as every television station aired the footage we all know too well. I was a 21-year-old student journalist, and this, I thought, was a true test of whether I could make it as a “real” journalist. 

Our editor sent us out to “get the story.” We all had different assignments; mine was to head to the Pentagon. As I made my way through the crowded streets of D.C., the collective panic palpable, all I could think about were all those families that would be forever changed by this traumatic loss. As I asked questions of first responders and government officials, I realized that my calling in a time of crisis was to be a helper. 

Following graduation from Journalism school, I pursued a career in social work and was drawn to helping those who had been forcibly displaced from their countries by war, violence, or persecution. Having moved around the United States as a child, living in four different states by the time I was 11 years old, and on a different coast from extended family, I couldn’t imagine if the moves had been forced; if we’d been fleeing life or death scenarios; if I’d been separated from or lost family during conflict; if rather than moving to different states, we’d moved to another country, with a different language, culture, and customs.  

Twenty years later, I have the honor and privilege of serving as the Chief Executive Officer of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), an organization that has been serving the D.C. metro area for more than 100 years. Among the programs LSSNCA offers are refugee resettlement and immigration services, which we’ve been providing since World War II. We welcome those fleeing violence, war, and persecution, many who arrive with only the clothes they have on their backs. Among the services we provide are cash assistance, food, permanent housing and assistance with rent, household items and supplies, case management, and job training and placement. We mobilize community partners—working with interfaith coalitions, community groups, and others engaged in our mission— to create welcoming communities to wrap around our new neighbors. We’ve served 10,000 refugees from all over the world since September 11, 2001. In our record year, 2016, we served 1,625 refugees. Over the past four years, due to the more restrictive refugee policies, we served approximately 500 refugees a year, 94% of which were Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders. LSSNCA has been serving SIV holders since the status was introduced in 2002, and many are our co-workers today. 

In July, we were asked by our national partner, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, to begin serving Afghan Allies who were being evacuated from Afghanistan by August 31. Without hesitation, we said yes. In the weeks that followed our initial commitment, as the situation in Afghanistan escalated and the Taliban took over, Afghan Allies came through our doors in higher and higher numbers. By the end of September, we expect to serve almost 1,000 individuals; about twice the number we served in any of the past four years.  

Being on the front lines of this response has been a great honor. Afghan Allies deserve our welcome and fulfillment of our promise of protection. When I’ve spoken with families, I’ve been inspired by their bravery, their gratitude, and their hope. Those I’ve met with worry about their families still in Afghanistan, and I hold that worry in my heart and lift it up in prayer. 

We would not have been able to welcome these families without the generous support of our community at large. We have volunteers in our offices every day, helping with administrative tasks and sorting and organizing donations. An army of volunteers signed up to help sponsor refugee families and set up their new homes. We have new relationships with corporate sponsors, who are helping with everything from feeding our case management staff, to providing hot Halal meals to Afghan Allies, to providing rides for Allies to appointments and interviews, to storing in-kind donations. We’ve deepened our relationships with the Afghan community. The generous support from our donors allows us to go beyond what the government grants cover, helping with rent, medical needs, and other necessary expenses. 

It’s easy to turn on the news and feel helpless about the state of the world. Recent images from Afghanistan are haunting. COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing. The devastation of Hurricane Ida is heartbreaking. At LSSNCA, we are channeling our grief, our fears, and our upset into service. What I’ve seen from my team, our partners, our community, and our supporters takes my breath away every day. I’ve seen our community at-large rally behind our allies in the most abundant and generous display of love and welcome, crossing age, race, gender, orientation, faith, and political boundaries. It reminds me of the days following September 11, 2001, when we came together to build a new future together.  

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