Like their counterparts around the country, the Refugee Services team at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston (IMGH) devotes much time to helping their clients get settled. The practical matters of housing, employment authorization, medical care, enrollment in schools and ESL classes are crucial during early months. Yet beyond the provision of core services required by federal funds, refugees and those who work with them know that feeling “at home” requires much more. It’s not just about having things in place but knowing that you are welcome and connected to others in your new community.

The desire to create such a welcoming space for Afghan families who had resettled in the Houston area was the inspiration for an event recently organized by the Refugee Services team at IMGH with several community partners. The Afghan Family Festival, held at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (ERJCC) on September 17, 2022, offered a four-hour extravaganza of activities, community building, and sheer enjoyment for participants of all ages.

Why offer an event specifically for Afghan families? IMGH staff recognized that the rapid evacuation and resettlement of Afghans (following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August 2021) was very difficult for all. More Afghans asked to resettle in the greater Houston area than in any other major city in the U.S., and resettlement professionals and volunteers had worked hard to provide core services. At the same time, family separation, language, and employment issues had burdened many newcomers. One year into this transition, the time felt right to offer Afghan families the chance to do something new and to enjoy the hospitality of the wider Houston community. The idea of a family-friendly festival began to take shape.

Martin B. Cominsky, the CEO of IMGH, reached out to the ERJCC about partnering with IMGH to offer this event. As he explained, “The Jewish community was eager to embrace the refugee community. Their facility was right-sized for all that we wanted to accomplish with indoor and outdoor activities. The ERJCC was eager to work with us, and we are grateful for the space, security and equipment they provided.”

Creating a space where people of different ages and interests would feel at ease was a key concern for Praveena Lakshmanan and other members of the core planning group. Lakshmanan, the Community Engagement Program Manager for Refugee Services at IMGH, described their planning process:

A group of five volunteers worked with IMGH staff for months. We envisioned a carnival-style event where guests could easily interact with each other and freely engage with the activities. We wanted to provide refugee families a space to wind down from the rigors of the resettlement process and their daily routine. In the end, we had over 230 participants, including children, youth and adults from refugee families and the wider Houston community! Many individuals and organizations from the community were integral to making this event a success.

As guests arrived at the festival on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, they were invited to move freely around the grounds. A series of stations in the large indoor space offered various crafts and creative activities:  drawing, painting, making bracelets, decorative flowers, or adding to large doodling boards. Adults stood admiring as children and youth lined up to get balloons shaped into their favorite animal or picked out books that appealed to them.



The volunteer-led Ladies’ Tea Room was especially popular among women: here, participants savored traditional snacks and tea and chatted with friends, while having henna applied. Other spaces included an area with soft furniture where mothers could get infants caught up with their feedings, while siblings and young toddlers explored toys and activities. In nearby classrooms, volunteers offered one-on-one English conversation practice and small group orientations on banking, budgeting and education – topics that appealed to men and women alike.

Attendees were also drawn outdoors by other options:  drawing with chalk on the sidewalks, playing with hula hoops, jump ropes, bubbles, soccer and sack races, or taking a turn at the bounce houses.


The “Watch Me Grow” station taught gardening with seeds in biodegradable cups, which participants could take home to nurture. Some children took advantage of the open field to fly kites donated by a community sponsor, while others clutched new teddy bears. To keep their energy up, participants helped themselves to popsicles, popcorn, and other snacks and drinks, and enjoyed mingling with special guests, from local elected officials to H-E-Buddy.


Wherever one looked, there were opportunities for pleasure, connection and self-expression, inviting everyone to take part, regardless of age, gender or background. As Praveena Lakshmanan observed,

The families were thrilled to spend time with each other as well as with others in attendance. One of the Afghan participants, who came to Houston over a decade ago, said that she had never attended an event like this and was very moved by it.

The festival gave everyone a break from their daily routine and the chance to meet people outside of the context of obtaining social services. We hope it will lead to other opportunities that will continue this kind of hospitality for our families.

By all accounts, the festival was a resounding success. It gave Afghan newcomers an opportunity to enjoy small pleasures, connect with others, and feel less alone in facing the challenges of adapting to an unfamiliar way of life. No doubt, the memories of this moment of respite — of kites flying high, teacups being refilled and friends chatting animatedly — stayed with participants, as they packed up to leave for the places that now felt more like “home.”

Kudos to the Refugee Services team of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, to the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center, and to the many volunteers and community partners who came together to create this space of welcome for Afghan families. And to our newest neighbors, let us affirm once again, we are so glad you are here!


Refugee Services of IMGH is grateful to its many community partners for their generosity: