The Colorado floods of 2013 and the 2021 Marshall Fire, disastrous as they were, showed how community and family members could come together to assist those who had been displaced. But how does the Front Range react when calamity strikes half a world away? Here, the Broomfield Resettlement Task Force leads the way.
By Dell Bleekman » Photos by Jamie Larson
In August 2021, Broomfield City Council member Heidi Henkel saw that her Front Range city could play a small role in helping with the refugee crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. At the time, Henkel and her husband Scott, a former captain in the US Army, were working to bring Captain Henkel’s Afghan interpreter Ahmad Siddiqi to the United States. It was then she knew this would be a bigger undertaking beyond helping one individual or one family. “We realized quickly our government wasn’t prepared for people coming over,” Henkel recalls, and in that moment, the Broomfield Resettlement Task Force was born.
At the time, the task force was a grass-roots collection of dedicated volunteers who saw a need. Of course, resettlement agencies at the local, state and federal level exist to assist refugees, but they are often overwhelmed. Henkel trained the new volunteers through resettlement agency protocols and set to work. “We are the extension of resettlement agencies to make newcomers feel more comfortable with resettling in Broomfield,” Henkel says. “Our main focus is to resettle our families with dignity and equity.” And that could not happen without the help of families already living in Broomfield.
Families Helping Families
Broomfield residents are lending a helping hand to newcoming refugees. Henkel saw this firsthand when a Broomfield police officer offered Siddiqi a place in the policeman’s own home upon his arrival.
And then there’s the larger community, reachable through social media. “We’ve developed a strong team that collects household goods for incoming families,” Henkel relates, noting that messages sent to the community requesting items often result in an outpouring of donations. Henkel knows the resettlement process is complex, and the task force tries to anticipate the many issues newcomers can face. “There’s a lot less trauma when you resettle with the things you need already in place,” she explains.
One challenge to relocating refugees in Colorado is an issue affecting many along the Front Range: affordable housing. This is one area where Henkel spends a significant amount of time as a member of both the city council and the task force. She knows this challenge first-hand. “I grew up with a mom who barely kept us from being unhoused, and I know what it’s like to move from place to place to place,” she says. Broomfield has recently built 9,000 new housing units and 3,000 are deemed affordable. “But affordable can mean different things to different families,” she states. Oftentimes the task force will assist families in a series of local moves, each time into a more affordable dwelling.
Another challenge is employment. “Many of our refugees are highly educated with master’s and other advanced degrees, but without American work history it’s difficult to get employed,” Henkel relates. So, she and her team strive to find local companies interested in hiring candidates with diverse real-world experiences.
The task force volunteers continue their efforts, one working tirelessly to find available housing for incoming families, another using her own home to store items families will need when they arrive and a third coordinating to navigate the school system.
With money from a recent grant in hand, the task force plans to provide driving lessons to newcoming women who were prohibited from driving in Afghanistan. A mental wellness grant will allow for swimming lessons for kids and adults, arts and crafts programs and even cooking classes for both men and women.
The task force is also creating a new marketing plan, recruiting more volunteers and launching a web site. “There’s so much more to this idea of resettling,” Henkel says. “It’s so much more than providing a home and car and then walking away.” To date, the task force has successfully settled 55 individuals to Broomfield. She’s pleased with how the community has stepped in and while there’s more work to be done, Henkel is optimistic. “It makes me proud to be a Broomfield resident, an advocate and a representative of my ward,” she says.
To learn more about the Broomfield Resettlement Task Force or to volunteer please visit broomfieldfoundation.org/humanitarian.
In a New World
For many Afghans living in the capital city of Kabul when the Taliban swept back into power in 2021, the choice was stark: stay and risk being killed, or leave. Semin (a pseudonym is used to protect her identity) had worked for a company that assisted US forces and knew she and her family would not be safe.
She also knew Kabul held no future for her or her family. A good friend had relocated to Broomfield two years earlier and let her know it was a wonderful place to live. So Semin set her sights on Colorado.
She immediately applied for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) through the US State Department. But it would take a full year for this visa to be processed, a time she recalls with dread. “No one felt safe,” Semin says. “We spent that year in hiding, moving from one family to another.”
In April 2023, Semin, her husband, three daughters and two boys finally arrived in Broomfield. She is grateful to the US government, which provided basic needs and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and to the Broomfield Resettlement Task Force volunteers who helped with transportation, school enrollment and basic household goods.
Now safely settled, Semin reflects on why she appreciates her new country. “In Afghanistan it was impossible for my children to go to school,” she relates, “and the most important thing for me is the education of my kids.” Certainly, there are challenges—she and her husband, both college graduates, continue to look for meaningful employment—but in Broomfield Semin sees the future. It’s where she wants her family to be.
A Helping Hand
Sometimes those who are the most helpful are those who originally received a friendly helping hand themselves. Such is the case with Oksana Kovalenko, who left Ukraine in 1998 on a religious refugee asylum visa.
Now long settled in Broomfield, Oksana realized she could be the helping hand for Ukrainians escaping war and relocating to the Front Range. But things have changed. “Ours were refugee visas back then,” Oksana recalls, “but today refugees come into the country on what’s called ‘humanitarian parole.’” Simply put, this means refugees coming to America today are dependent on a sponsor to support them financially. “Newcomers must be sponsored,” Oksana explains. “Finding someone willing to make that financial commitment is difficult.” Oksana and her husband are currently sponsoring a family of six, who are living with them in their Broomfield home. She supports her sponsored family in a variety of ways: she translates at medical appointments and school visits, drives to the food bank and the DMV, whatever is necessary.
The Broomfield Resettlement Task Force is also an invaluable resource. “Heidi and the task force have been helpful because they’ve done this before,” Oksana states. “They’ve been helping with Afghan refugees, so they have insights and expertise.”
Oksana still has extended family in Ukraine and would like to see them in a safer environment. But it’s a challenge to find a sponsor, someone who will make that kind of financial commitment. For now, she and her husband will focus their energy on the family they have sponsored. “It’s a big commitment,” she explains. “But they left with nothing except a suitcase and their small children.” Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand.