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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Community members unite to help Afghan refugees resettle

Graphic by Elisa Carrasco Lanusse.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August of last year, at least 600 Afghan refugees have arrived in Iowa where they hope to “find a place where there’s economic opportunity and escape a life that had to be difficult,” says Al Ricks, one of the members of the Community Support for Immigrants (CoSI).

CoSI is a grassroots organization, mainly based in Grinnell but also in Tama and Brooklyn, that is focused on “trying to smooth the rough places and create a welcoming community for new Iowans,” says Ricks.

Its mission is to build bridges of trust, mediate attitudes of divisiveness around the topic of immigration and reduce the impact of an immigration enforcement incident on the social fabric and economic well-being of the community.

The organization now serves as a mission of the Grinnell First Presbyterian Church, and Ricks explains how it was initially formed with the intent of “preparing the community to respond to the possibility of immigration raids.” 

Ricks then explains how the members quickly “recognized that the mission of CoSI needed to be bigger than just responding to possible Immigration and Customs Enforcement action.” 

The organization now mainly cooperates with the Des Moines division of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) to provide services including assistance with food, shelter, living expenses and transportation along with offering English practice sessions at the library and instructing immigrants on their legal rights.   

“Distribution mostly started through talk of mouth and Mexican restaurants, and then channels seemed to open by themselves after that,” says Ricks.

These distribution efforts were put to the test following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic that threatened the entire community, especially its immigrant population. 

Relief organizations were not spared from the pandemic’s grip, and many struggled to resume operations. “It’s almost like they’re trying to build the airplane while it’s flying,” says Ricks.

As John Kenneth Ashby, also an active member of CoSI, states “problems affect us all, but it’s the people who are less fortunate that suffer disproportionately worse.”

This disparity has alarmed many members of the community and Kenneth Ashby says “I couldn’t believe this was happening in America. That sort of lit the fire, and we began to realize there are truly a lot of needs.”

“The way I look at it is if you parachuted me into Afghanistan right now, I doubt I would be able to survive,” said Kenneth Ashby.

He continued, “that’s the case for so many of these families. They need help navigating the school system, the bills, the health system, dealing with law enforcement, you name it.” 

The organization also plans on partnering with Grinnell College on future projects, with many being mediated through Vanessa Preast, the associate director for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the College and an active supporter of the organization.

Preast helped CoSI run a mask-making campaign that recruited volunteers from the community and was able to make and distribute around 4,000 masks and several hundred bottles of sanitizer.

The strictly non-political organization depends on the generosity of donors, and as Ricks says “CoSI is appealing to the community to help raise some dollars that can be sent through the mail to buy the items needed by the immigrants.” Ricks goes on to explain how “the federal stipend [immigrants] initially get doesn’t stretch and pretty soon they need to buy a cooking pot, a pair of work boots, a winter coat, and so much more.”

“An extra drop in the bucket is a good thing because it’s one drop more than we had before,” says Kenneth Ashby.

“Unless a person is from an indigenous background, … we’re all immigrants. Very few of us arrived in first-class passage and everyone could use some help to settle into their new homes” says Ricks.

The organization is also working on setting up a way to donate Amazon and Walmart gift cards, along with possible volunteer opportunities to help with distribution efforts. 

Donations can be mailed or dropped off at CoSI Refugee Drive, First Presbyterian Church, 1025 Fifth Ave., Grinnell, Iowa 50112. For additional questions contact CoSI at or visit 

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About the Contributor
Nick El Hajj
Nick El Hajj, Editor in Chief
Nick El Hajj, hailing from Beirut, Lebanon, is a fourth-year political science and economics major. In his free time, Nick enjoys delving into a good book, embarking on scenic drives and indulging in random documentaries. You’ll frequently find Nick waking up way too early to enjoy a peaceful morning of fishing at Arbor Lake.
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