LEE – Thomas Logsdon was about to host a large family of evacuees from Afghanistan into his home last month when he realized he needed to find a market that sells halal food – which means it is allowed under Islamic law.
He asked for help online, and 88 comments were posted on his Facebook post with suggestions for doing business in the area – the Albany area, for example, has a number of specialty markets.
Logsdon preferred to stay on-site and found a decent supply of certified lamb and beef at Price Chopper’s Market 32. Then he went shopping for vegetables and fruits with one of the men and used his phone to translate from English into Pashto, an official language of Afghanistan.
The family, who hosted the Logsdons for a week-long emergency stay, were among the first evacuees to be relocated from U.S. military bases to communities across the region.
The Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based resettlement agency, was instrumental in the post-Taliban takeover of the Afghan government. By the end of January, the agency expects 31 Afghans trying to settle in the Berkshires, with more to come in the coming months.
They will face a number of challenges along the way, such as finding stable housing, learning English, and getting driver’s licenses and jobs. But one of the earliest obstacles was finding food that would meet the religious needs of the evacuees.
“All of our volunteers went crazy driving around looking for halal food,” said Gabriela Sheehan, Berkshire’s relocation coordinator for the Jewish Family Service.
Berkshire Bounty, an organization that sources groceries from stores to fill pantries, is partnering with the agency. It bought halal meat at the Depot restaurant in Chicopee to be given to the evacuees. The non-profit organization also buys products and other groceries and delivers them directly to the families.
“This is the first step in helping all Afghan refugees and we will be delivering groceries to all the families we can reach every two weeks,” said Jay Weintraub, co-founder of Berkshire Bounty with Mark Lefenfeld. Both found that the halal meat is expensive due in part to supply chain issues.
â€œWe had the feeling that we would pay what we had to pay so that these people would feel comfortable in a new environment,â€ said Lefenfeld. He said the group also wanted to learn what families like to eat.
Finding the meat could get easier, and very soon. Logsdon learned that Sol Ibrahim, owned by 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 on January 14th. He said halal has some similarities to what is considered kosher under Jewish law, particularly in the way animals are slaughtered.
Halal means â€œpermissionâ€ in Arabic. Halal meat must come from an animal that has been slaughtered in the prescribed manner. Only certain cuts of meat are allowed; Pork and already dead animals are banned, as are a number of other ingredients.
Other products like cheese, supplements, and processed foods must be free from animal sources that are not halal. In the USA, the ISWA Halal Certification Department approves a wide variety of products and stamps them with their symbol.
Carolyn Behr is part of a small group at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown that helps an Afghan family adjust to a new life. She said she was excited to hear about a new market in the county.
“I was partly trying to find halal meat,” she said, noting that she had heard about several Afghan markets in the Albany area and assumed that she would have to drive a lot.
Logsdon and his family are out and about while a second group of evacuees stay at the house they routinely rent through Airbnb. The short term renter works with relocation 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 spice – hot, but not too hot,” he said. “It had great taste.”
He said the families are “mostly” fine, but face daily challenges without transportation or their own money.
“The man I communicated with says he is dying to get a job, get his driver’s license, make money, and get back to a normal life,” he said. “Volunteers have to help him with the shopping, and he only has money that people give him.”