by Mark Van Streefkerk
The U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has left a chaotic and uncertain path forward for refugees and those with special status seeking to evacuate during the Taliban takeover. Washington-based organizations and resettlement agencies are scrambling to rally resources and funding to welcome people fleeing Afghanistan — U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents (of the U.S.) and their immediate family members, those with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), as well as refugees. These organizations are anticipating resettling thousands of people over a timeline that will take months, or even a year.
Afghans with SIVs are typically those that have worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan. Currently, the U.S. Embassy has issued a directive for U.S. citizens to be evacuated, but other at-risk Afghans without special status are also fleeing the country as refugees.
Navid Hamidi, executive director of the Afghan Health Initiative (AHI), explained the current situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control: “Eventually people that worked with the United States Army or western countries, any type of involvement, those people will be targeted and they are in fear of their lives … As the U.S. pulled out and the Taliban took power, they had no strategy and no plan to evacuate all these people.”
“The only thing that people thought was the best option is to go to the Kabul airport. There’s so much chaos going on there right now … they are all in the airport begging for the U.S. and their allies to just evacuate them,” he said.
While the U.S. military still controls the Kabul airport, the Taliban has taken control of the roads leading to it. Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Washington, said that there’s been reports of violent skirmishes surrounding the airports that now make people hesitant about going there. “The U.S. released a statement saying they could not ensure the safety of folks who are traveling to the airport,” he said. “So it’s this Catch-22 situation, ‘We have a flight out for you, but we can’t ensure that you’re going to get inside the airport safely.’”
CAIR-WA is a civil rights and advocacy organization that stands up against anti-Muslim bigotry and also does some immigration work. Brianna Auffray, a civil rights and immigration attorney and CAIR-WA’s legal and policy manager, has patched together a network of aid workers on the ground in Afghanistan helping people connect to their evacuation flights. CAIR is “helping about 75 individuals who are trying to leave Afghanistan right now. One-third of whom are children under 12,” Siddiqi said. “We’re working around the clock to make sure that anyone … trying to return that has either U.S. citizenship or permanent resident legal status has an opportunity to get back somehow.”
Siddiqi said that at one point CAIR-WA learned that there was a potential for some people to be charged $2,000 by the U.S. for their evacuation. For a family of six or seven, that could lead to crushing debt. Due to widespread social media backlash, the U.S. “indicated they’re not going to enforce these promissory notes … The power of social media I think had a positive effect on that pull-back from the state department,” Saddiqi said, noting that if it weren’t for social media, people wouldn’t know about these kinds of behind-the-scenes conditions.
CAIR is asking people to get in touch with their state representatives to urge President Biden to help Afghans evacuate, approve Temporary Protected Status for Afghans in the U.S. immediately, raise the refugee cap, and expedite refugee admissions. You can use this link to send a letter to your representatives today.
Once refugees arrive in Washington, resettlement agencies like Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW) pick them up at the airport and take them to temporary housing. Other resettlement agencies include the International Rescue Committee, Jewish Family Services, Episcopal Church’s Refugee Resettlement Program, and World Relief Seattle. The agency provides housing and helps the refugees navigate aid for three months. “In the past week alone, we resettled 24 Afghan SIV refugees,” said LCSNW president and CEO David Duea. “We’ll probably resettle close to 20 this week. It really depends on how quickly [the U.S.] can process them and how quickly [evacuees] can get out of Afghanistan.”
LCSNW has a full-time housing navigator who finds housing for refugees, including host homes and hotels if needed. If you’d like to make a donation, host storage space for furniture donations, or offer a host home, email email@example.com.
Find out about the many volunteer opportunities available through multiple agencies — including offering rides from the airport, meal assistance, English tutoring, mentorship, or even sponsorship — at this sign-up form.
After the three-month resettlement process, organizations like South Seattle’s Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) will connect with refugees to provide further assistance. “Over the past 35 years we’ve been able to develop all sorts of programs around the needs of refugees and immigrants so we could be a one-shop stop. I like to say that we serve people from the cradle to their golden ages,” said Mahnaz Eshetu, executive director of ReWA.
AHI is a health-based nonprofit formed by refugees and immigrants working with public health to advocate for the needs of the Afghan community. AHI has rallied the support of over 400 volunteers so far to donate housing for incoming refugees which provides additional support for overwhelmed resettlement agencies. Hamidi said that King County typically accepts 7% to 10% of refugees applying for SIVs. “But this is an unprecedented time,” he said. “Of 20,000 visa applicants who will fly to the U.S. within a month or two, at least 2,000 to 3,000 SIV holders will [be heading to] Washington state; that’s our prediction.”
To help raise funds for the incoming refugees, AHI has launched an emergency campaign to raise $500,000. “None of this money will go to administration fees; it will be used strictly for the needs of those families,” Hamidi said.
You can donate to the fund here.
“We are from the community. We are Afghans, we speak the language, we know the culture,” Hamidi emphasized. “The sacrifices these individuals make to come here is astonishing … [they] want peace, they want opportunity, they want to live and build their families and their futures in a peaceful environment … they are at our doorstep and we need to help them.”
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 10/11/2021 to include the Episcopal Church’s Refugee Resettlement Program to the list of organizations that provide resettlement services to refugees.
📸 Featured Image: Photo via Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.
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