By Kathreen Harrison
When Kabul fell to the Taliban in mid-August after forty years of violence and superpower involvement in Afghanistan, many Afghans knew right away that they would be in the crosshairs of the new regime. Either they had worked for the U.S. in some capacity – military, diplomatic, construction, interpretation – or they had careers in journalism, human rights activism, or humanitarian work that put them at risk. And some were simply family members of American citizens or legal permanent residents. What these hundreds of thousands of people all had in common was an urgent need to get themselves and their families out of Afghanistan before the Taliban punished them for their affiliation with the west.
And some did get out, and are now rebuilding their lives away from their homeland – including here in Maine. By the end of August, U.S. and coalition partners had airlifted more than 120,000 people to safety. Of these, more than 76,000 were Afghans who were brought to the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome, according to Department of Homeland Security. Before the evacuees were resettled in different states around the country, they lived on domestic military bases, and underwent immigration processing, and medical screenings. Since September, over two hundred Afghan evacuees have been resettled in Maine. Most have family ties here, and live in the Greater Portland Area, and Lewiston/Auburn. Some are in York County, and a small number of Afghans have moved to Augusta.
How does resettlement work in Maine?
Resettlement of Afghans in the U.S. is administered by the U.S. State Department through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program (APA), which launched on September 1. The APA program works with states, nine national resettlement agencies and their affiliates, and other faith-based and community-based organization across the country. Catholic Charities, the oldest resettlement agency in Maine, was the first to administer the APA program in Maine, and welcomed the first new arrivals from Afghanistan, which began in earnest in October. As of press time, Catholic Charities had welcomed 106 APA arrivals to Maine, with 13 more arrivals expected in early to mid-February.
Because Catholic Charities has been a resettlement agency for decades, they already had a team structure in place to support resettlement, and they began to prepare for the new arrivals in August. However, because of the large number of Afghans due to come to Maine, on top of regular refugee arrivals, the nonprofit hired more people to fill positions on the different teams – employment, case management, housing, medical, benefits. And they created a new position, Director of Case Management, now held by Charles Mugabe. Mugabe has extensive experience with case management, project management, and has worked with Catholic Charities since 2016.
The APA program is federal, and funds direct services that include housing, household items and furniture, food supplies, help with school enrollment, cultural orientation, limited financial assistance ($1,050 per individual – total), and assistance enrolling in English language classes, along with other services – all for a period of 90 days. After 90 days, the Refugee Social Services program takes over, and continues to provide services such as employment, and workplace integration for up to five years. Catholic Charities holds the contract for Refugee Social Services for Maine.
Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services (MEIRS), is playing a huge role in welcoming Afghans to Lewiston. Rilwan Osman, Executive Director of MEIRS, said that MEIRS had applied to become a resettlement affiliate in early 2020, before the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan was on the horizon for most. In fact, MEIRS was in training to become a “community partner” when Kabul fell. When the State Department reached out, asking for help – essentially fast-tracking MEIRS to “community partner” status, he recalled deciding, “Let’s do it!” Osman himself arrived in Maine 17 years ago as a refugee, and said he felt compassion for the Afghans, and a desire to help. He remembered how hard it was for him to navigate services with limited English when he first arrived. A majority of the MEIRS staff – 80% – are also New Mainers, many of them former refugees.
MEIRS is headquartered in Lewiston, with a a second office in Portland. As of January 12, Osman said that MEIRS had welcomed 99 arrivals, and would probably receive another 12 Afghans, for a total of 110 arrivals. MEIRS started with two case managers and one housing specialist, but very quickly Osman realized he needed more people to help. Now MEIRS has eleven people working on Afghan arrivals, including case managers, housing specialists, and someone to handle transportation.
“We expected to receive 10 people a week over a period of eight months, and planned for that. But then there was a change in plans at the upper levels, and we started receiving 40 people a week instead,” Osman said, adding that his staff has been working seven days a week to be sure the needs of all the arrivals are met – food, medical care, permanent housing, for example.
In late October, the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine (JCA) was approved as a Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) affiliate partner, and also readied itself to welcome Afghans. JCA had not responded to a request for information by press time, however a January 7 post on their website reads: “We were so pleased to welcome the JCA’s first Afghan refugee family through HIAS late last night, just before the snow. We are grateful that they are safe and warm here in Maine.”
“With the Afghan crisis, it has been a huge advantage to have more hands on deck, because the need has been so great. Having MEIRS and JCA involved is a huge advantage,” said Mugabe.
Unique challenges and advantages of Afghan arrivals
And the Afghan Community of Maine has been involved in the resettlement effort right from the planning stages.
“We knew we needed cultural and linguistic knowledge, and the organization has been a key partner throughout the resettlement process, particularly with communication. Some of the arrivals have no English at all. The leaders were key in bridging language barriers,” said Mugabe, who went on to explain that the needs of the Afghan arrivals are unique, and that it was the Afghan Community of Maine that helped explain the culture.
To begin with, Dari and Pashto are particular to Afghanistan, and although most language interpretation services were able to provide Farsi – spoken in Iran – Farsi would not help when trying to speak with Afghans. Also, most new arrivals only eat Halal meat, and prefer a particular kind of rice that must be purchased from culturally appropriate stores. And some new arrivals come from remote areas of Afghanistan, and were not familiar with modern household items, so needed practical help adjusting. Without the Afghan Community of Maine, resettlement would have been much harder for everyone to navigate.
In Lewiston, Osman noted that despite the need for help, the Afghans come with skills, and most already know basic systems, unlike the refugees who come directly from refugee camps, such as the thousands of Somali refugees who came in a large wave decades ago.
“These people came directly from their homes. They left everything in a very short period of time to get out, so they have nothing. And they came at the beginning of winter, without warm clothing. But their skills will make it easier for them to get a job. And they will be an asset for any town or city that is willing to diversify,” said Osman. He said that among the arrivals are pilots, carpenters, IT people, teachers, cooks, auto mechanics, people who worked in the hotel industry.
In the beginning, Osman was worried that the Afghans would face discrimination and hostility in Lewiston.
“My biggest fear was that they’d hear negative comments about refugees and immigrants…but I haven’t heard anything negative at all,” he said.
Instead, when MEIRS reached out to the community, they got a huge response. “In two weeks, our donation room was filled! People have driven two hours to bring us donations,” he said.
The biggest challenge has been housing. “Maine has a very bad housing shortage. We have been looking to place people in metropolitan areas, with resources. But it was a challenge. Most landlords we work with had no available apartments at all. Still, people helped in all kinds of ways. Someone even offered to buy a building, and we were able to house three families there!” Mugabe said.
He noted that 90% of the landlords who are housing Afghan arrivals are new landlords for Catholic Charities, and that most of the families Catholic Charities is resettling are in permanent housing. In Lewiston, approximately 50% of the Afghans are in permanent housing, or have signed a lease, Osman said.
A Maine welcome
Both Rilwan Osman and Charles Mugabe rave about the great welcome extended to the Afghans by Mainers.
“It’s been a tremendous collaboration throughout,” said Mugabe, citing local, state, and federal partners that have been involved in the work of resettlement. And many individual Mainers have sent gift cards and donations of clothing to help the new arrivals.
“All of this demonstrates Maine’s character, and our welcoming spirit,” said Mugabe.
“I’d like to thank everyone. These people served the U.S. back home in Afghanistan, and it’s good to see Mainers extend a greeting,” said Osman.
According to the International Rescue Committee, as many as 300,000 Afghans were affiliated with U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Doing the math, that means about half remain in danger of retribution by the Taliban. This number includes relatives of Afghan Mainers, who are deeply concerned for the safety of their family members back home. Winter is harsh in Afghanistan, food supplies are scanty, the financial system has broken down under the Taliban, and people with known family members in the U.S. face harsh retribution. On top of that, the Humanitarian Parole program created by the federal government is not working for Afghans, and efforts to bring family members to safety in the U.S. have stalled.
Meanwhile, thousands of people did make it safely out of Afghanistan, but are not yet resettled, and are waiting at transit locations overseas for admission to the U.S. According to officials at the White House, as a possible invasion in Ukraine looms, the Biden Administration is working on an expedited plan to get those individuals resettled in the U.S. as fast as possible.