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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
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Every week since September, volunteers have gathered at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City at all hours of the day.
An average of 50 new Afghan evacuees have landed each week — sometimes a hundred or more. There are no “welcome home” signs, flowers or celebration, but instead snacks, a change of clothes, an extra set of arms for holding babies, quiet support, and crucial tips and tricks for their new home.
“These folks are looking for a safe haven,” said Carly Akard of Catholic Charities Oklahoma. “They fled with their lives and now we have to help build them back up.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan in August, the U.S. has evacuated more than 76,000 Afghan nationals to the U.S., according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As of Jan. 31, more than 68,000 Afghans relocated to the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome have been resettled in communities across the country, in coordination with more than 290 local resettlement agencies. Approximately 8,000 are still in the process of completing their resettlement and remain in temporary housing on three military bases in the U.S.
READ MORE: ‘I feel so helpless.’ Afghans in the U.S. worry for friends and family back home
As the resettlement effort continues across the country, coalitions of nonprofit partners, local businesses and interfaith organizations are joining together to help find housing, clothing, transportation, employment and education opportunities and cultural classes for the new arrivals, as well as for the local school teachers, employers and police who will support them.The path to a new life is lengthy, filled with red tape and new daily challenges. Local leaders say their communities have responded with open arms — the challenge is sustaining that momentum for as long as it takes to give refugees not only a place to live, but the connections they need to thrive in their new homes.
“We saw so much outpouring of love and support and energy right when the first arrivals got here,” said Veronica Laizure, Civil Rights Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma (CAIR-OK). “Now we’re starting to see this last push like, ‘let’s get everyone here and let’s get them settled. Let’s get them safe.’ And we just want to encourage everyone to keep that momentum because this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Eastern Michigan University student body vice president Auryon Azar shares a cup of tea with an Afghan family, now new friends and neighbors, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in cooperation with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
Oklahoma has welcomed more than 1,100 evacuees from Afghanistan, and expects that total to rise to more than 1,800 people by March 2022, making it the third-largest area for resettling Afghan evacuees in the United States.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt was part of a collection of state and national leaders welcoming evacuees, but advocates were wary of Oklahoma’s history dealing with issues of Muslim identity and what it would mean for the safety and wellbeing of evacuees arriving in the state.
WATCH MORE: Local community, businesses in the Bay Area band together to aid Afghan refugees
Before white nationalists were found to be responsible for the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah federal building, media and terrorism experts quickly directed blame toward the Muslim community. As detailed in a Council on American-Islamic Relations report following the attacks, this led to a number of threats against mosques and Islamic centers, including at least one arson, verbal and physical attacks on Muslims in public and harassment at the workplace. In 2010, more than 70 percent of Oklahoma voters approved a ban on Sharia law, the religious law of Islam, though it was later overturned in federal court. In 2014, John Bennett, the current chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said that he would not tolerate Islam in the United States and called the religion “a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” That following year, a large group of protestors at the state capitol met the local Islamic community as they came to join in prayer and celebrate the otherwise peaceful “Muslim Day at the Capitol.” Despite these incidents in recent years, Laizure said the community response had been uniformly welcoming.
“We know that Oklahoma does not have the best reputation for being welcoming to people of Islam,” she said. “But we also know that Oklahomans will pull together like none other in a crisis. We’ve seen it in disaster response after tornadoes. We’ve seen it in the response after incidents of violence like the Murrah bombing and we’ve seen it here.”
Mira Sussman of Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County adjusts the cushions of a couch donated by the community for Afghan families moving into Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
Michigan, which has had its own issues with anti-Muslim sentiment, is expecting to resettle about 1,300 Afghan allies and nationals, with five different agencies handling the resettlement in different parts of the state.
Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (JFSWC) has been resettling evacuees for almost 45 years, and found in the last six months the number of people arriving and needing assistance at the same time was unprecedented.
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been this many people who arrived so quickly and needed services, all at the same time,” Mira Sussman, JFSWC resettlement program resource manager, told the NewsHour.
READ MORE: As Afghan refugees arrive in the U.S., Southeast Asian American advocates urge more support
JFSWC is handling the resettlement of 300 Afghan individuals. People began arriving in October and are expected to continue arriving through February.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang explores what resettlement efforts have looked like for Eastern Michigan University and the surrounding communities. Video by DPTV One Detroit.
Eastern Michigan University president James M. Smith and EMU general counsel Lauren London saw an opportunity to help. The university had several student and married family housing units that were not fully occupied, and with an already robust diverse and international student population, they saw an opportunity to broaden their school slogan from “You are welcome here” to “All are welcome here.”
They’re teaming up with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County to relocate 12 families to their Ypsilanti, Michigan, campus.
“I’ve been heartwarmed by our students who say, ‘Look, I don’t know anything about immigration law. I don’t know anything about a language that would be far, far from the one or two that I might speak. But I can move a couch,’” Smith said. “‘I can hook up a television or a computer,’ and those folks are coming forward. And I think that all lifts us in very positive ways.”
Eastern Michigan University student senators Hamzah Dajani and Cedrick Charles help move beds and furniture in cooperation with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County on move in day for Afghan families in Ypsilanti, Michigan | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
One of the largest challenges with resettlement remains housing. It has taken six to eight weeks for the staff of Opening Doors, a Sacramento-based resettlement agency, to secure Afghan evacuees places to live, according to Jessie Tientcheu, the agency’s CEO.
She said the resettlement process, about five months in, is still in the initial welcoming phase since there are still evacuees arriving from military bases and those who have made it to Sacramento haven’t been able to fully settle in.
“If we’re still welcoming folks through February, we’re probably looking at the end of April by the time we get everybody housed,” Tientcheu said.
WATCH MORE: How Seattle’s Vietnamese community is helping Afghan refugees
In Michigan, Sussman said the challenge is deepened by the size of family units. “These families are often really large and they need three or four-bedroom units, and there simply aren’t enough large houses and apartments available.”
The other issue is cost. “The prices of everything have gone up. And so we require donations and federal and state money and local money, and that just takes time,” Sussman added.
The Sacramento area is one of the top destinations for Afghans in the country. Since 2019, at least 11,422 foreign-born Afghans have resettled in the region, at least by one estimate from the George Mason University Institute for Immigrant Research. So, the search for housing has been aided in part by families who take in evacuees while apartments are secured, Tientcheu said.
Although her organization has the staff to help in resettlement, including some who can communicate in the Farsi, Pashto and Urdu languages, Tientcheu said a critical component of the process has been Sacramento’s established Afghan community. Some evacuees arrived to stay with family already living there.
“We have been leaning on that community so much,” she added. “The work of resettlement is still happening. From our perspective, we haven’t yet settled into the next phase.”
READ MORE: How you can help Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S.
Tientcheu, like others across the country offering assistance, also said the nature of the latest Afghan evacuation was more traumatic than some others in the past. She said in some cases, evacuees are arriving alone because of the chaotic separation at the Kabul airport in the final days of evacuation.
“The Afghans had not even hours to prepare themselves to leave their country, leave everything behind, and move to a new country. Often, they didn’t even know where they were going. So this is a much more traumatized population,” Sussman said. “They came with no mementos, no pictures. Oftentimes, if they did pack things, they were left in the rush at the airport.”
The challenges for Tientcheu’s resettlement agency were compounded by the timing of Afghan refugees’ arrival. Off the heels of California wildfires that forced hundreds of people to be evacuated from their homes, the scramble to find temporary housing even in hotels was a challenge.
Though this wave of Afghan evacuees brought with them English proficiency as well as job skills gathered from their work with American military — the very things that made it risky for them to stay in their home country — finding jobs hasn’t been so easy, particularly because of the wave of evacuees who are still in search of basic resources like housing and enrollment in schools and healthcare.
Tientcheu worries most about evacuees who are unmarried or without children. For these people, cash assistance from the government, which can last for up to eight months for refugees, is less if they do not have children. With the tight housing market, and few available steady jobs, getting on their feet will be a much more difficult task.
An embroidered Hmong pillow donated by the community connects previous generations of refugees with Afghan families moving into Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan, in cooperation with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
Laizure said while the Afghan arrivals meet the dictionary definition of evacuees, the vast majority do not meet the legal definition of a refugee since most did not apply for their status while outside the country and will not have any of the legal protections that legal refugee status confers. In many documents, they are referred to as “Afghan arrivals” or “parolees” to distinguish between their legal status and that of a typical refugee.
While applying for permanent legal status is a long and challenging process under normal circumstances, the process is made more difficult as Afghan parolees are up against the clock and need to secure legal status before their temporary status expires. Otherwise, they risk being returned to Afghanistan, Laizure said.
“If these folks’ asylum is denied or if they don’t understand the process because it’s so complicated … they could potentially be at risk of deportation back to the country they evacuated,” said Tientcheu in Sacramento. “It would be a tragedy.”
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The federal government has said it will expedite these applications, but Laizure said there are better legal pathways for the adjustment of status, including the Afghan Adjustment Act, which in part would allow certain Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent status after one year of being paroled into the country.
Supporters say it would relieve the immediate burden on the Special Immigration Visa process and the asylum process — which currently faces a backlog of more than 412,000 cases. It would also prevent Afghans paroled in the U.S. from losing their jobs or being deported while their applications for these statuses are pending.
So far, efforts to introduce an Afghan Adjustment Act in Congress have stalled.
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In 1966, Congress unanimously passed the Cuban Adjustment Act to allow parolees who had fled the communist regime to apply for legal permanent residence after one year of residence in the U.S. Another adjustment act in 1977 following the Vietnam War was also passed by Congress to allow more than 150,000 refugees from Southeast Asia to apply for permanent residence.
“We need action,” Laizure said. “We can’t send them back to a place where they don’t have homes anymore, where they will fear they will be in fear for their lives and the lives of their families.”
Eastern Michigan University student volunteers help Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County make up warm bedrooms for Afghan families in Ypsilanti, Michigan | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
CAIR Oklahoma is still helping gather supplies as more evacuees continue to arrive. Racks of clothes, stacks of toiletries and hygiene products, prayer mats and Qurans line the hallways and offices of the organization as case managers and volunteers shuffle in and out during the day with shopping carts worth of supplies.
In Michigan, JFSWC is also focused on the long-term, connecting families to medical care, employment, schools, public assistance, transportation, and even a naturalization program. “We stay with them,” Sussman said.
Programs and supplies are a good start. But Kim Bandy, founder of the nonprofit Spero Project in Oklahoma City, said programs are not a good substitute for relationships — “every new neighbor needs a network.”
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The Spero project is focused on ensuring new neighbors have personalized, nuanced and robust support as they navigate life in a new place. In a recent virtual meeting to address the needs and concerns of the new arrivals, Bandy told a group of local leaders about the difference between inviting evacuees to come and welcoming them.
“Our goal is to welcome new neighbors to Oklahoma City,” Bandy said. “We are translating the difference between inviting someone to Oklahoma and welcoming someone to Oklahoma so Oklahoma can be a place of belonging and not just invitation.”
Remi Peythieu, who works for Catholic Charities Oklahoma as a job developer to match evacuees with employers, said the long-term success of the Afghan arrivals will hinge on successful long-term employment and that 90 percent of individuals in permanent housing have a head of household who is employed. And while the immediacy of being in a new place hits very quickly, the process of learning to live there can take years.
“It takes time, patience, effort and partnership,” Peythieu said. “I would love to snap my fingers and say ‘hey, your families are settled and integrated and everything is great.’ But it’s a very long process.”
Eastern Michigan University student volunteers helping Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County move Afghan families into available student housing units in Ypsilanti, Michigan | Photograph by Natalie Reitz, Detroit Public TV
Student government leaders at Eastern Michigan University only had a few days notice in December to get ready for the 12 Afghan families they welcomed to campus. They jumped into action, mobilizing friends, friends of friends, and student clubs like the forensics speech and debate team to move furniture, build beds, set up kitchens, fill pantries, and create welcome bags.
For Luis Romero, EMU student body president, helping other families get started helps him better understand his father’s experience coming to the U.S. as an immigrant from Honduras. “He came here with nothing,” Romero said. “It’s been a reminder that when we work together, we can really help people out and really help our community and be stronger together.”
Some EMU students were also able to connect with arriving Afghan families through shared language and experience, food, complaints about the cold weather, and soccer.
Student senator Hamzah Dajani, dressed in a thick full-length winter coat in EMU colors, first came to the U.S. four months ago as an international student from Jordan. “And so now that I’m instilled in the community, now that I’m an active member, I feel like it’s my duty to help others who are in the same position that I was.”
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In addition to preparing welcome bags with EMU T-shirts, pens, notepads, and walking maps of the city, students are also getting bus passes for the families and setting up a mentoring program. Students have also been using their cultural knowledge to make sure that the families have the right kind of spices and kitchenware that they will need.
“Afghan and Persian cuisine are very similar,” Auryon Azar, EMU student body vice president, said. “I could not imagine growing up in a Persian household without a polopaz, a rice cooker, and having the little crispy rice at the bottom, the tahdig. And especially in our culture, meal sharing is a really, really profound experience. So things like having the right spices, having the right cookware and having the right space to share while you’re having a meal are incredibly important.”
Azar speaks Farsi because both of his parents were born in Iran and fled to the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war. Although a different dialect is spoken in Afghanistan, the languages are close enough that he has been able to converse with some of the Afghan families.
“I see my parents in every one of those kids,” Azar told the NewsHour. “First time we were here, my girlfriend brought a soccer ball and [the] kids’ eyes just lit up. But when I see the kids here, I also think about the ones that haven’t come here yet.”
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a reporter for the PBS NewsHour out of Fresno. Follow him on Twitter @cres_guez
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