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Freshta Zary, right, hugged Katie Schwaneke, who works with HumanKind STL and is a parishioner at St. Clement of Rome in Des Peres, shortly after a car was presented to Zary at Villa Duchesne in Frontenac. Catholic Schools Week fundraising efforts by Villa Duchesne students raised money to support the Zary family.
Freshta Zary, right, hugged Katie Schwaneke, who works with HumanKind STL and is a parishioner at St. Clement of Rome in Des Peres, shortly after a car was presented to Zary at Villa Duchesne in Frontenac. Catholic Schools Week fundraising efforts by Villa Duchesne students raised money to support the Zary family.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Villa Duchesne students welcome new Afghan neighbor through Catholic Schools Week activities

Villa Duchesne students get to know newly arrived Afghan immigrant through Catholic Schools Week fundraising

It was a Holy Spirit moment.

Students at Villa Duchesne were considering an organization to support through their annual Catholic Schools Week fundraising activities. They reached out to Ann Wittman, a member of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin who started HumanKind STL to support new immigrants, mostly from Afghanistan.

Wittman knew just the person they needed to meet — and how they could help.

Freshta Zary and her husband, Masood, arrived in St. Louis in March following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. The family has had a bumpy road settling in St. Louis. Most recently, they needed to replace a car.

That’s where Villa students stepped in. Each year during Catholic Schools Week, students in the Upper School, through their Student Council, raise funds for a worthy cause through activities such as dress-down days, raffle baskets and selling spirit wear. This year, their activities took on a more personalized approach as they got to know Freshta and her family through several activities at the school during the week.

Villa Duchesne and HumanKind STL presented a car to the Zary family on Feb. 2, purchased with $5,000 students raised during the week. (In all, Villa students raised more than $6,000 to support the family.) Freshta also visited the school twice to sell homemade Afghan desserts and host a Supper Club, where she served traditional Afghan dishes, including manto (beef dumpling), lola kabob (rolled meatball), gosh-e fil (pastry) and naan bread.

At the Supper Club on Feb. 2, Freshta shared how her family fled Afghanistan to come to the United States. Because her husband worked closely with the American government in Afghanistan, their lives were in danger. With their two daughters — and eventually a third on the way — the family had to leave behind everything.

“Everyone’s life became dark,” Freshta told students. “It was the worst and most difficult day of my life. It was a very bad and dangerous situation. God helped us get through the hard times.”

By March, the family had made it to St. Louis. Since then, they have lived in three apartments. In one, they had a fire in the kitchen and were relocated to temporary housing for several months. That dwelling turned out to be infested with bugs, so they started over with the help of HumanKind STL. The Zarys relocated to another apartment in Affton, but since the arrival of their third child six months ago, the family has exceeded the occupancy limit and is now searching for a new place to live.

Villa students were inspired by Freshta’s work in Afghanistan to help educate women, who traditionally had not been allowed to receive an education before the U.S. drove the Taliban from power in 2001. With a degree in business and education, Freshta was a teacher, principal and founder of a school that educated 1,500 children.

At night, she invited her students’ mothers to school, where they were taught reading, math and other subjects, and how to help their children with schoolwork. It was a free service. Freshta said she now wants to use her skills to teach Afghan women in St. Louis, especially as they adapt to American culture.

Villa senior Liza Brown, president of the Student Council, said hearing about Freshta’s life in Afghanistan and coming to St. Louis gave their fundraising efforts significant meaning.

“You see her family and how much they’ve gone through to get to where they are, and all you want to do is help them,” she said. “My faith is strengthened through connection and relationships — hearing her talk about her experiences with God and praying to get through these hard times helped me to grow in my faith, too.”

Senior Elizabeth Kraeger, Student Council secretary, said Freshta’s courage and strength inspired her. “I think it was nice to have such a personal connection with her because it makes it so much more real,” she said. “This has inspired me to act as Jesus would; my Catholic faith plays a huge role in my desire to help others. It’s about loving your neighbor.”


>> HumanKind STL

Ann Wittman of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin joined with several other women to start the nonprofit organization in 2022 to raise funds to help immigrants, many of them from Afghanistan, start their new lives in the United States. HumanKind STL is a program of Welcome Neighbor STL.

In addition to fundraising, HumanKind STL also develops relationships with local businesses to help families obtain much-needed items, including vehicles and washers and dryers. To learn more about HumanKind STL, including ways to donate or volunteer, visit www.humankindstl.org.

>> Welcome Neighbor STL

Welcome Neighbor STL continues to serve the needs of immigrants and refugees in St. Louis.

The nonprofit organization continues to work with an influx of Afghan families arriving here, and is still in need of family partners to commit at least a year and up to 20 hours a month providing support for newcomers. It also has information on sponsoring Ukrainian families through the North America for Ukraine, which is working to provide assistance with the immigration process, host matching, employment opportunities and general resources.

Welcome Neighbor also continues to host its popular Supper Club program, to build relationships and enjoy international cuisine while supporting local refugee women. For more information on ways to volunteer or donate, visit welcomeneighborstl.org.


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