By Taylor Romine and Mirna Alsharif, CNN
It’s an image that went viral and stunned people around the world earlier this week: around 820 Afghan refugees crammed into a US C-17 military plane. Men, women and children all banded together as they escaped Taliban rule for a new life in the United States.
As Americans watch Afghans desperately flee their country, groups providing services to refugees scramble to help them.
Since President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan, refugee advocates have urged the federal government to speed up the immigration process so that as many Afghan evacuees as possible can get out quickly and safely.
Obtaining visas for Afghans attempting to leave the country will likely be a lengthy process, which in this case will primarily require Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs.
It is not known how many Afghans will arrive in the United States. The International Refugee Assistance Project estimated Wednesday that around 100,000 refugees will settle in the United States.
So far, around 2,000 Afghan refugees have settled, the majority in Fort Lee, Virginia. In addition, there are 20,000 SIV applicants in the pipeline, including about 10,000 in the early stages of the process, according to the State Department.
The influx of Afghans comes after years of record admission ceilings to the United States, which some experts say leaves the system ill-prepared for this expected wave of evacuees.
Now, refugee support groups facing what they say is a weak immigration system, health advisories and a slow visa process are working tirelessly to prepare for a traumatized population that will need help to adapt to their new home.
24 hour refugee support groups
Lutheran Social Services National Capital Area (LSSNCA), a refugee and immigrant resettlement group serving the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia area, has already taken in 68 Afghan families, or about 300 people, according to CEO Kristyn Peck . The group expects around 160 more people in the next 10 days.
Peck believes that most of the Afghan evacuees will pass through Fort Lee for the purpose of completing the SIV. She says they will eventually settle in the DC metro area, as many of them have assisted the US government on their missions abroad and have a connection to the nation’s capital.
“We have been serving Afghan refugees with IVS since 2002,” Peck said. “Last year we served 500 in one year, this year we will have served 500 in August alone.”
The group significantly scaled back its operations during the Trump administration, Peck says, and had to resize them very quickly.
While the job proved difficult, Peck says the LSSNCA has welcomed help from more than 1,500 volunteers. He also received 200 donation boxes.
Many organizations have told CNN that they have also received an overwhelming number of volunteers in the past two weeks.
“Interest has grown completely in recent days,” said Holly Taines White, senior director of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay (JFCS), which serves residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Several hundred people have filled out our volunteer form, and there is an explosion of people donating furniture and household items.”
Housing, one of the priorities
One of Taines White’s biggest concerns is the pace of family arrivals. Finding affordable housing for them, she says, is another problem. While JFCS has built relationships with landlords, Taines White says the affordable housing available is very limited.
In some cases, the group will temporarily offer families an Airbnb. Small groups are hosted by volunteers, she said.
Welcome Home, a community group in Jersey City, New Jersey, has also struggled to find housing for Afghan families.
“It’s very chaotic,” said Alain Mehta, CEO of Welcome Home. “The housing market is initially difficult and rents are high, but we have tried to capitalize on uninhabited religious spaces, like parsonages. “
The organization has been in talks with partner resettlement organizations over Afghan evacuees since January, and its members have called on U.S. senators to issue more SIVs.
“Months have passed, nothing has changed, and now you can watch the news and see what’s going on in Kabul,” Mentha said.
Welcome Home relies on donations and volunteers to scale up its operations before receiving Afghan evacuees, according to Mentha.
Housing is important, but it is not the only priority.
Helping Afghan refugees adjust to their new environment by providing them with English lessons, vocational training and placement, and teaching them to use public transport is essential.
Many come in family units and can be reunited with an already established family. But others have no connection, says Russel Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas.
“We’re doing everything to acclimatize them,” Smith said. This includes access to government services, health care and employment services.
RST saw seven families arrive last weekend, and they expect at least 100 more families to be in place once travel arrangements are made.
Taines White pointed out that many refugees are deeply traumatized and in need of mental health care because they have “literally feared for their lives for years”.
“I have heard stories from some of these people saying they kept the kids inside for a few years,” she said. “And for a very good reason. All have received death threats. They saw their friends and families killed.
“They must be here because of the measures taken by our country”
Michael Breen, CEO of advocacy group Human Rights First, said the United States has a responsibility to its Afghan allies.
“As a veteran, I can say that I owe my life to our Afghan allies,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s not just the performers. There are so many people who have risked their lives – children, families – to keep us safe. And for 20 years, American veterans have looked our allies in the eye and made those promises wearing the nation’s uniform. “
Taines White echoed this notion. She also expressed concern over anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
“Our country has an obligation to help these people to be safe. They are in danger because they worked with our army or our embassy, ”she said. “We have a moral obligation to take care of them. They must be here because of the actions of our country. “
If you are interested in helping Afghan refugees, click here for a list of resources and approved organizations accepting donations.
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