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Live with Purpose - August 29, 2023

The Small Actions That Make a Great Difference

By Amanda Ranowsky

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Edward Everett Hale, Unitarian Minister and Advocate for the Emancipation and Education of Enslaved People

When we look at the world today, at the immeasurable scale of disaster, hurting and need, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and say, “there’s nothing I can do to fix this.” But, whatever the history books claim, change was never made in one grand sweep. It has always taken individuals doing what good they could – however small it may have seemed against the greater need.

Goodwin House Alexandria (GHA) resident Pierre Shostal is a living example – not only of someone doing the something he can do, but also the difference that one person can make by doing their little bit of good in the world. In 1941, Pierre and his family fled German-occupied France as refugees. Today, Pierre volunteers with a program helping Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

Receiving Help as a Refugee

Born in 1937, Pierre was a young child when his family left France. His father was an Austrian of Jewish descent. His mother, born in Hungary to a Catholic family and raised in Vienna, Austria, married his father in 1933. Soon after, the couple moved to France where they started a business and a family. World War II began in 1939, and in 1940, Germany invaded France.

As he discovered many years later, it was the actions of one man that saved Pierre and his family from Hitler’s persecution of Jews in the territories controlled by Germany. Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV was a relatively low-ranking U.S. diplomat working in Marseille, France. He’d been instructed to issue a visitor’s visa to Pierre’s father only. When Pierre’s father refused to leave without his family, Harry Bingham turned the offer into an immigrant visa for the entire family. Pierre’s family was not the only one Bingham helped. In ten months, Bingham helped an estimated 2,500 families flee France.

Once safely in the U.S., Pierre shared that his family “were taken in hand by the Quakers – the American Friends Service Committee – who helped us get settled in America. They took us out to a place that they had in Iowa, and that’s where my little brother and I learned English.”

Recognizing Advantages and Limitations

Years later, Pierre reflects on the help his family received. “I realized just how important helping refugees to settle really was,” he said. “My family had some very real advantages. My parents were both PhDs from the University of Vienna and learned English very easily. They had a high level of education and came from a European background.”

Pierre compares his family’s experience to that of Afghan refugees today. “This is very different from the Afghans who come from a very different culture,” he shared. “Many of them do not have that that level of education and are having more difficulty in getting adjusted to American life and to looking for jobs in the American job market.”

Giving Back to Refugees Today

Pierre and his British-born wife Hilary moved into GHA in 2011. Following a career in the U.S. Foreign Service, Pierre was eager to continue making a difference. Among the activities he began after moving to GHA was joining the GHA Outreach Committee. Through his work on the committee, he learned of mission and outreach programs organized by Christ Church of Alexandria, an Episcopal church in Alexandria, Virginia with a long history of community engagement and philanthropy.

“The Lazarus Ministry, led by Christ Church and staffed by volunteers from many local faith communities, helps low-income Alexandrians who are suddenly in financial difficulties with their rent and with medical bills and utility bills,” Pierre shared. “As more and more refugees and asylum seekers moved to the area, they started a new branch, which became the Christ Church Refugee Ministry.”

Pierre continued volunteering with the Refugee Ministry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, he has worked with an Afghan family who came to the U.S. in 2016, as well as several other refugee families. Pierre also works with a young man who, at the age of 17, was separated from his family during the evacuation of Kabul in 2021.

NPR recently shared the story of that young man in a radio report. As NPR has done, we will refer to him as BH to protect his anonymity. BH’s family was unable to make it onto one of the airplanes evacuating Afghans from Kabul. They remain in Afghanistan and in danger of retribution from the Taliban regime.

Connecting with a Young Refugee

Pierre counts working with BH as one of his most memorable and moving experiences working with refugees. “I’m glad that I’ve been able to contribute, at least in a small way, to helping him make to make progress,” he said. “What he’s accomplished so far is really quite amazing, and he’s done that because of his strength of character and determination.”

Inspired by Goodwin Living President and CEO Rob Liebreich’s commitment to supporting Afghan refugees, Pierre helped BH get a job at GHA and stays in touch with BH to hear about his educational career – BH is pursuing a degree in cybersecurity from Northern Virginia Community College.

“He’s staying very busy,” Pierre shared, “but he’s also dealing with trying circumstances. He’s got relatives, some of whom are in serious danger, and that makes him all the more remarkable for being able to function very well even while he has that kind of burden.”

Sharing a Lifetime of Experience

Pierre feels his long career in the Foreign Service prepared him well to assist refugees today. “Some of the skills that you develop in the Foreign Service – of quickly sizing up a situation and responding to it, of writing reports with clear recommendations and, especially, of dealing with people from different cultures – these are skills that I was able to take and apply to the volunteer work I do today,” he said.

As Harry Bingham and the Quaker members of the American Friends Service Committee did before him, Pierre shares the time and talents he has been given and makes a difference, even if only for a few people in a small corner of the world. Lest that seem insignificant, look at the timeline: had Harry Bingham and the American Friends Service Committee not done what they did to help refugees, Pierre might not be here today to make a difference in the lives of others. Who knows what BH and the other Afghan refugees Pierre has helped might do in future?

Still, we can do something.


As Marketing & Communications Specialist, Amanda Ranowsky partners with colleagues throughout Goodwin Living to tell our stories and raise brand awareness. From printed collateral to digital marketing, Amanda covers many bases. Before joining Goodwin Living, Amanda worked for a small, family-owned business where she gained experience in content marketing. Amanda’s creative expression extends beyond the office. She is an active member of community theater and chorus groups.


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