BERKSHIRE: Lee – Thomas Logsdon was about to receive a large family of evacuees from Afghanistan into his home last month when he realized he needed to find a market that sells food that is halal — meaning that it is permitted according to Islamic law.
He asked for help online, and 88 comments flooded into his Facebook post with suggestions for stores around the region — the Albany area, for instance, has a number of specialty markets.
Preferring to stay local, Logsdon found a decent supply of certified lamb and beef at Price Chopper’s Market 32. Then he took one of the men out to shop for vegetables and fruit, using his phone to translate from English to Pashto, an official language of Afghanistan.
The family that the Logsdons were hosting for an emergency weeklong stay was among the first group of evacuees that have been resettled from U.S. military bases to communities throughout the region.
Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based resettlement agency, has been instrumental in the effort in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government. By the end of January, the agency expects there will be 31 Afghans trying to settle in the Berkshires, and more will arrive in the coming months.
And they’ll face a number of challenges along the way, like landing stable housing, learning English and getting driver’s licenses and jobs. But among the earliest obstacles has been finding food that meets the religious requirements of the evacuees.
“All our volunteers have been going crazy driving all over the place trying to find halal food,” said Gabriela Sheehan, the Berkshire resettlement coordinator for Jewish Family Service.
Berkshire Bounty, an organization that sources food from stores to fill pantries, is partnering with the agency. It has purchased halal meat at Restaurant Depot in Chicopee to give to the evacuees. The nonprofit also is buying produce and other food and delivering it to the families directly.
“This is the first step in supporting all the Afghan refugees, and we’re going to supply food every other week to all the families that we can reach,” said Jay Weintraub, co-founder of Berkshire Bounty along with Mark Lefenfeld. Both noted that the halal meat is expensive, in part, because of supply-chain snags.
“We felt we would pay what we had to pay to make these people feel comforted being in a new environment,” Lefenfeld said. He said the group also wants to learn what the families like to eat.
Finding the meat might get easier, and very soon. Logsdon learned that Sol Ibrahim, who owns Sol’s Mediterranean Grill on Melville Street in Pittsfield, is opening a halal market there.
Ibrahim, who helped found the Alkhalil Islamic Center in the former Notre Dame Church in 2019, hopes to open Jan. 14. Ibrahim told The Eagle that he will bring in a butcher who understands the dietary law. He said halal has some similarities to what is considered kosher according to Jewish law, particularly in the way animals are slaughtered.
Halal means “permission” in Arabic. Meat that is halal has to come from an animal that is slaughtered in prescribed ways. Only certain cuts of meat are permitted; pork and animals already dead are prohibited, as well as a number of other ingredients.
Other products, like cheese, dietary supplements and processed foods, must be free of animal sources that are not halal. In the U.S., the ISWA Halal Certification Department approves a large array of products, and stamps them with its symbol.
Carolyn Behr is one in a small group from the First Congregational Church in Williamstown helping an Afghan family adjust to a new life. She said she is thrilled to hear of a new market in the county.
“Part of what I’ve been doing is trying to find halal meat,” she said, noting that she had learned of several Afghan markets in the Albany area, and assumed she would have to do a lot of driving.
Logsdon and his family are traveling while a second group of evacuees stays in the home, which they routinely rent through Airbnb. The short-term rental company is working with resettlement agencies to pay for temporary stays.
He had some meals with the first family he hosted.
“One was an eggplant dish with a lot of seasoning — spicy but not too hot,” he said. “It had a great flavor.”
He said the families are doing well, “for the most part,” but face daily challenges without transportation and their own money.
“The man I communicated with says he’s anxious to get a job and his driver’s license, to start making money and go back to a normal life,” he said. “Volunteers have to help him shop, and he only has money that people give him.”
© The Berkshire Eagle