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Local Veterans Raise $10,000 for Afghan Refugee Relocation
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:09PM / Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Mark Pompi, left, a former Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan, and VFW Post 448 Commander Arnold Perras present a $10,000 check on Wednesday to Gabriella Sheehan, who is coordinating the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the Berkshires for Jewish Family Services.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier had mentioned the resettlement effort to Afghanistan veteran Mark Pompi, who started a fund drive. Mayor Linda Tyer, right, said the city was ready to work with Jewish Family Services of Berkshire County to aid the new city residents.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Veterans of Foreign Ward Post 448 presented the Jewish Family Services of Berkshire County with a $10,000 check on Wednesday to aid the relocation of Afghan refugees.

The funds will help new Afghan-Americans settle in by supporting the acquisition of housing and other resources needed to be successful. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Mayor Linda Tyer were in attendance at the Berkshire Athenaeum for the presentation.

"I knew when I was hired that it would be pretty easy to help these families settle into Berkshire County because we have the people who had so much heart, and we're talking from Williamstown to Sheffield, it's been incredible," said Gabriella Sheehan, who was hired in December to coordinate the organization's resettlement effort.

"People have come from everywhere to help because this is something that has deeply touched our community, I'm so honored to be able to be able to bring families to Pittsfield and to Berkshire County."

The veterans launched the drive for the Afghan Resettlement Program over the summer after the United State began pulling out of Afghanistan, causing many of those who worked with Americans and allied nations to flee the country for their lives as the Taliban retook control. About 125,000 Afghans and allied citizens were airlifted out, with the last U.S. military flight leaving on Aug. 30, 2021, while others made their way out by other means.

On Aug. 26, a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul caused casualties of U.S. troops and Afghan civilians attempting to leave in those final days.

Following that attack, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Pompi, who had been deployed to Afghanistan, received a phone call from Farley-Bouvier, who told him of a pre-existing program for refugees. Pompi was enthusiastic about contributing to the effort and said he was "all ears."

"We all felt that we owed a debt to the Afghan people that stood with us," he said. "In fact, it's ingrained in our warrior ethos to never leave a comrade behind."

Over the next few months, he recruited fellow veterans and had numerous virtual meetings to help with the logistics of receiving the families. Berkshire County will receive about 60 refugees.

The $10,000 donation is a result of the fundraising efforts over this time.

Tyer said the city had previously worked with JFS in 2016 toward the possibility of welcoming Syrian refugees. Though it never happened, she said these conversations were easily translated to today's situation.

"The very first time that I became familiar with JFS was back in 2016 in my first year in office, and we had conversations with them at that time about the possibility of helping Syrian refugees find a place to call home here in Pittsfield in the Berkshires," she said.

"And that didn't work out, there was a change in federal presidential administration and all the work that we had done up to that point came to a halt, so by the time we come to this conversation, I was familiar with JFS and confident that they could help our community through this process."

She commended Pompi for his efforts, coining him as a "champion of this resettlement effort" for lending his time and energy to welcoming the new Americans.  

Farley-Bouvier stressed the importance of immigration in the city's history, pointing out that Pittsfield and Berkshire County have — sometimes imperfectly — welcomed others including the Irish, Italian and Jewish communities.

"This is another wave of immigration that is going to make our community stronger and better," she said.

It is only a matter of time until one of the refugees is a member of the School Committee or a city councilor, Farley-Bouvier added, and that starts with welcoming them here and now.

Pompi said VFW Post 448 Commander Arnold Perras was one of the first veterans that he knew he could contact to join the veterans' group and grow the membership.

Perras read a message from VFW National Commander Matthew M. "Fritz" Mihelcic, who felt that withdrawal had some of our veterans feeling U.S. troops may have died in vain by this action.

He also read this at the 20th anniversary ceremony for the 9/11 attacks in September.

"While there is bitter sentiment over this withdrawal, we encourage you to hold your head high because of your vigilance, hard work, and selfless sacrifice," he read. "You've dealt a tremendous blow to al-Qaeda taking out its leader Osama bin Laden, and disrupting its ability to plan and execute another major attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001."

He added that the VFW needs Afghanistan, Iraq, and Desert Storm veterans and is offering a five-year free membership for those who do.

Pompi closed in saying that this is not the end of the work that is being done to support the new Americans. He also hopes this will be an inspiration for the wider community to join the effort.

He thanked several organizations and individuals including Tyer's office, Farley-Bouvier's office, VFW Post 448, American Legion Post 68, Sheriff Thomas Bowler, Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, and Soldier On.

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