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Pilar’s Foundation hosted a fundraiser at the Zion Lutheran Church Sunday to support the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Washtenaw County. Pilar’s Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Pilar’s Tamales that partners with local and international organizations to provide vital services to immigrants and refugees in the Washtenaw County area, collaborated with Jewish Family Services (JFS) on the fundraising event. 

The fundraiser was Pilar’s Foundation’s first “official” fundraiser since acquiring tax-exempt 501(c)3 status. Although the new status allows them to expand their fundraising efforts, the foundation has been operating for over 20 years and has been committed to “working locally to make the world a better place,” according to their website

Attendees could order meals that included either two, six or 12 tamales, accompanied by curtido (cabbage slaw with onions, carrots, oregano and apple cider vinegar), casamiento (a mix of black beans and white basmati rice) and Pilar’s tamale sauce. The restaurant donated all the proceeds to the foundation’s charitable efforts. 

In order to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, customers were able to place orders in advance, and they were available for curbside pick-up, if preferred or walk in.  

Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers, owner of the restaurant and president of the foundation, said Pilar’s has been giving back to the community for the past two decades. 

“Every event that we have done continues to help us to do our work better,” Nolasco-Rivers said. “The work that we’ve been doing for the past 20 years has been really a labor of love.” 

A refugee herself, Nolasco-Rivers said she was nine when she and her family emigrated from El Salvador in the 1980s to escape the civil war — a conflict between the Salvadoran government and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The 12-year war took the lives of approximately 75,000 Salvadorans.

“(Being a refugee) is like a tree that’s been around for 30 or 50 years, and you pull it out of the ground,” Nolasco-Rivers said. “You’re pulling out roots that have just been growing and getting bigger and stronger, and then you try to replant it somewhere. It’s stressful and hard.” 

Through their affiliation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), one of nine national agencies that do resettlement work, JFS has helped resettle a total of 84 families in the last five months. The group has aided with food, housing, health and legal affairs.

Devon Meyer, chief development officer of JFS, said since refugees usually arrive without any basic resources, one of JFS’ primary objectives is to ensure those refugees have some kind of support when they arrive in a new country. 

“Our friends from Afghanistan who came over under the parole status came over with maybe a few belongings,” Meyer said.  “I mean, there wasn’t time, it wasn’t the typical resettlement process. This was a dire situation. They need a partnership and support system prior to that taking place,it’s about being there as a resource for first and foremost, basic human needs.” 

The fundraiser’s goal was to raise $10 thousand, which would allow at least 30 more families to be resettled, according to Meyer. On top of that, Meyer said JFS has agreed to help another 350 refugees globally. According to Nolasco-Rivers, the fundraiser is just shy of their goal as of Tuesday. The fundraiser will remain open for the entirety of April.

Although this was the foundation’s first official fundraiser as a tax-exempt charity, Pilar’s Foundation Vice President Sue Shink mentioned wanting to hold another event this year.

“Before COVID we were doing two (fundraisers) a year,” Shink said. “We are trying to do another one. I’m hoping, I think we’re all hoping, that we’ll be able to do something more extensive. With eating in a special place, music and entertainment and socializing,” 

The event was accompanied by live background music being played in the Stellhorn room, to the left of the main entrance. UM alumni Jeffrey Thiele played original tunes with an intricate set-up — a keyboard, a saxophone and a clarinet and several pedals at his feet. Thiele, who mentioned living in El Salvador for a few years, said he had met Nolasco-Rivers because he frequently visited Pilar’s Tamales. 

“I’d worked kind of nearby. So I would visit Pilar’s periodically, and, you know, I told her that I was a musician and whatnot. And she’s like ‘oh, like in the future when we have events you think you’d be able to help out?’ and yeah. This is the first one.” Thiele said. 

Business sophomore Nicole Lopez, President of the student branch of Michigan’s Association of Latino Professionals For America, attended the event and prepared meals in the church’s kitchen. Lopez said she had been volunteering to help with the fundraiser for the three weeks leading up to the fundraiser by prepping vegetables and making the sauce and the tamales. 

“It reminds me so much of home, it’s like Hispanic gratitude,” Lopez said. “Sylvia’s values of family and love and giving back. It’s the values of gratitude and service … and to be reminded of how important it is to give back and love is really one of the strongest things there is, especially in the community.”

According to Nolasco-Rivers, the spacious kitchen and atmosphere of the Zion Lutheran Church allowed them to cook an estimated 8,000 tamales. She also said all the food that wasn’t sold was given to the church’s shelter services. The kitchen was crucial for the making of food, so she called Jim Debner, senior pastor at Zion Lutheran, to propose the project.

“I wasn’t even done explaining the project and (Jim Debner) said, ‘yes, you can’,”  Nolasco-Rivers said. “If it is going to make a difference in people’s life then you say yes.” 

Pilar’s foundation found a way to adapt to the pandemic and to put together an event that demonstrated the community’s commitment and willingness to help in times of humanitarian crisis. 

“It is the labor of love,” Nolasco-River said. “It takes people wanting to collaborate and do something to alleviate the suffering of others. And, you know, my thought is that if you’re a human being at one point in your life, you will suffer. Suffering comes in many different ways. And the power of love heals that.”

When reflecting on the accomplishments of the event, Meyer said everyone involved in the fundraiser was impressed with the turnout. 

“The community’s response has been tremendous,” Meyer said. “It has been an incredible journey to witness.” 

Daily News Contributor Cecilia Duran can be reached at