Haya Zary’s first birthday was celebrated just the way you’d expect — family, a meal, birthday cake and presents. But her party also included new American friends who have become like family.
On a sunny July afternoon, Haya played with brightly colored blocks on the floor of a screened-in porch, while her parents, Masood and Freshta, watched their two older daughters, Nida and Nisa, swim in a nearby lake with their friends, Ann Wittman and her family, parishioners at Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin.
Joining them for Haya’s birthday celebration were Ann’s parents, her husband and kids and two of Ann’s three sisters and some of their children. Over a lunchtime buffet of pizza, fruit, salad and chips, Ann’s sister, Ellen Wunderlich, led the group in prayer:
“Dear Lord, bless all of these people in this room from near and far. A special blessing for baby Haya who brought us all together for her first birthday. Thank you for the blessings of the lake, and the food we’re about to eat and for the friendships that are here.”
The Zarys befriended Ann and her family in the spring of 2022 when they arrived in St. Louis from Afghanistan. Masood worked closely with the U.S. Army and qualified for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans following the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.
Because they arrived in another U.S. city and later resettled in St. Louis, the Zarys’ resources here were limited. That’s where Ann stepped in. She and a cousin had been helping Afghan families through a program of Welcome Neighbor STL. Ann later started a nonprofit, HumanKind STL, to support immigrants, many from Afghanistan, as they arrived in St. Louis.
Ann has leveraged her connections, primarily within the Catholic community, to help families with some of their basic needs. But she also quickly saw they needed help navigating life in a new country, with a different culture. And most of all, they needed new friends.
“In Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says, ‘What you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me,’ I think about that all of the time,” Ann said. “They are my brothers and sisters in Christ — I don’t think about them as refugees or immigrants. We are all equal and in this world together.”
Freshta, who has nine siblings most of whom have relocated to Australia, described Ann as another sister: “When I am nervous about anything, I text message her,” she said. “When she replies to my message I feel so relaxed. She’s like a close friend. I share everything with her, my life story, my family situation — everything.”
A new path
Because of Masood’s job with the U.S. government, the Zarys were no longer safe in Afghanistan. With two daughters — and a third on the way — they had to leave behind everything.
After arriving in St. Louis, the family had a bumpy road, including moving to several apartments and needing to replace a used car. (With Ann’s support, students at Villa Duchesne High School raised money during Catholic Schools Week in 2023 to help them purchase another car.)
In Afghanistan, Freshta earned a degree in education and finance and worked in education as a teacher and principal. She also founded a school that educated 1,500 children. At night, she invited the students’ mothers to school, where they learned reading, math and other subjects, as well as how to help their children with schoolwork. It was a free service.
Freshta received her education in Afghanistan during a time the country was not under Taliban rule. Since the Islamic group’s takeover in 2021, restrictions once again have been imposed upon girls’ education. Because of her upbringing and education, Freshta is fluent in five languages: English, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto and Dari.
Now, she wants to use those skills to teach Afghan women in St. Louis, especially as they adapt to American culture. In August, she became a full-time case worker with Bilingual International Assistant Services (BIAS), a nonprofit organization that supports foreign-born individuals with multilingual social, mental health and educational support.
Her primary work is assisting Afghan evacuees through the federal Services to Afghan Survivors Impacted by Combat (SASIC) program. In the fall, she also began teaching classes to Afghan women on American culture at the new Afghan Community Center, launched in 2023 through the International Institute of St. Louis.
“I am so happy in this work, because every time when I go to see a client, they trust me and tell me everything. That gives me a good feeling,” she said. “Sometimes my clients call me on a Saturday or Sunday, and I take those calls, because they need someone to talk to.”
In the Persian-speaking world, the name Freshta means “angel.” A client recently told her that she embodies her name’s meaning. “She says, ‘You are my angel. You’re not just Freshta. When I am so sad and I called you, I am now happy.’”
Seeing the face of Jesus
Since the evacuation from Kabul more than two years ago, more than 900 people from Afghanistan have arrived in the city of St. Louis, according to the International Institute. Ann met her first Afghan family in November of 2021 through Welcome Neighbor’s family partnering program. The Wardaks had five children, with a sixth on the way. They invited Ann into their bare apartment; even with little knowledge of English, the father was eager to start working to support his family. The Wardaks have since purchased their first home and are well on their way to independence. Ann remains friends with the family.
Ann believes the Holy Spirit guided her to the needs of the Afghan community. She had just entered a new season of life and was discerning what to do after staying at home with her children for 15 years.
“I realized I could use my personality and connections to raise funds and awareness,” she said. “The more we could help people, the more relationships you build.” Through a growing network of friends, family and former colleagues, Ann started HumanKind STL; the nonprofit now falls under the umbrella of Welcome Neighbor to further support its family partnership program.
Now when she receives a call from a family partner, or someone like Freshta who is helping a client, Ann uses the funds to help with whatever the need may be: a new washer or dryer (through a partnership with the Craftsmen Cares Foundation), a used car or a shopping trip to Walmart to purchase basic household items.
Ann sees the Catholic Social Teaching principle of solidarity in action every day. “We need to all come together as a community and view all of us as brothers and sisters of Christ and help each other,” she said. “Maybe you have money to donate. Maybe you have time to give. Maybe you have love to share. Maybe you have a car to pick up somebody. You use your skills to come together to help others.”
She’s taught her own children — and she shares this message with students when she speaks to them about HumanKind STL — about the importance of being the face of Jesus to others, and seeing Jesus in the other, too.
“God gives us all a gift, and He wants us to share that and be Jesus to them,” she said.
Ann will remember that the next time she sees a text from her friend Freshta.
Ann Wittman joined with several other Catholic 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 humankindstl.org.
Welcome Neighbor STL
Through its programs, including the family partnering program, the nonprofit organization continues to work with an influx of immigrants and refugees who have come to St. Louis. 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.
International Institute of St. Louis
The International Institute of St. Louis is one of nine resettlement agencies in 19 cities designated by federal government to work with refugees. In recent years, the International Institute had downsized because of a lack of refugees being accepted into the country due to national policies. The International Institute is now welcoming one of the largest influxes in its history, with up to 100 new arrivals each month — a high percentage from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
In January 2022, the International Institute and Jerry Schlichter, a local attorney and a founder of Arch Grants, announced a comprehensive program to help resettle Afghan families who have been displaced from their homeland. It includes resources for housing, and the establishment of an Afghan newspaper, chamber of commerce and community center, among other resources. Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski joined with area leaders at the announcement as part of a call to action for volunteers, housing and financial support.
There is an ongoing need for volunteers at the International Institute to sponsor refugees, helping with a wide range of tasks including transportation, access to medical help, apartment set-ups, job opportunities and office support. For information on donations or volunteer opportunities, see www.iistl.org.