By Jean Damascene Hakuzimana
As the world’s eyes remain focused on the ongoing Afghan crisis, organizations in New England are working around the clock to prepare a welcome for Afghan refugees, many of whom are currently housed on U.S. military bases, waiting to be allowed to leave and begin the process of settling into local communities.
“It is a huge humanitarian operation–I volunteered on one of the military bases processing Afghan evacuees,” said Crissie Ferrara, program manager at Ascentria Care Alliance Service for New Americans, an aid program dedicated to resettling refugees in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Ferrara described the mood on the base. “It was a mix of emotions. We welcomed them to a safe place, and most were feeling relieved to arrive, but many were also thinking about their relatives left behind. Some said they felt only partially happy and were consumed with worry for others left behind.” Some evacuees spoke limited English, while others spoke only Dari or Pashto.
Like many states, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts will be receiving Afghan refugees. Hannah DeAngelis, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Maine, said that her organization has started mobilizing in preparation for arrivals, and will do whatever they can to support Afghans refugees when they arrive in Maine. DeAngelis said CCM would rely on Maine’s robust network of organizations dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees succeed in Maine to work with CCM in this humanitarian emergency. The first meeting of key stakeholders took place on September 9.
The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration has created a new program to assist with the resettlement of people from Afghanistan here in the U.S., and Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services will administer that program for Maine. The organization has been approved to re-settle 67 to 100 people from Afghanistan through March 30, 2022. According to a statement by Catholic Charities, Afghans entering the U.S. through the APA program do not have refugee status and they do not hold Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). They are persons who may have worked for a nongovernmental organization, in the media, or for a nonprofit whose alliance with the United States makes remaining in Afghanistan too dangerous for them. They are being granted entrance for their support of and work with the U.S. during its time in Afghanistan.
Ascentria Care Alliance is leading the resettlement planning in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They have previously resettled thousands of refugees from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in Concord, Manchester, and Nashua, New Hampshire, as well as in Worcester and West Springfield, Massachusetts. Since 2013, Catholic Charities of Maine has resettled 105 Afghan refugees, and between 2013 and 2018, CCM conducted intakes for 2,179 individuals from a variety of countries, including Iraq, Syria, and a number of countries in Africa. There are over 2.5 million Afghan refugees worldwide, with many more expected due to the current humanitarian crisis.
Worry for evacuees’ families left in Afghanistan is legitimate
A common denominator among many Afghan evacuees is concern about retaliation by the Taliban against family members, if those who are in the U.S. speak to the press. One Afghan woman living in New Hampshire declined to sit for an interview because of this concern.
A Mainer of Afghan origin who has been in the U.S. for decades agreed to talk to Amjambo Africa only on condition of anonymity, for the same reason. “We have more than 70 families from Afghanistan living in Maine, and most are happy to welcome their countrymen, their brothers and sisters. I know some who have welcomed tens of families, and it is a great gesture,” the Afghan-Mainer said. He also said his family members back home are being harassed by the Taliban. “They burned their commercial vehicles, and now family members are rotating from place to place to find some safety.”
As the community prepares to host evacuees, our source emphasized that Mainers need to understand what happened over the decades in Afghanistan, which led to this humanitarian crisis. “Some of these Afghans served side-by-side with the American military and diplomats in a 20-year war that ousted the Taliban – which is now back in power.” Many evacuees themselves are confused, and can’t understand what happened to produce such a collapse, our source said. “They need to be told the truth of what happened – that a 20-year plan collapsed in a week. They are as confused as Americans are on this subject.”
DeAngelis, of Catholic Charities, is concerned about finding housing. “Affordable housing has been our nightmare in the resettlement program for years,” she said, predicting housing would be a problem for the Afghans, too. Plans will involve placing Afghan evacuees in temporary housing if more permanent housing is unavailable.
“We are calling for robust funding at the federal and state levels,” said Ferrara, of Ascentria Care Alliance. “The case for many Afghan evacuees is different from refugee status, and will not allow the evacuees some benefits, such as cash assistance or health coverage. Many Afghan evacuees are entering the U.S. on humanitarian parole. After arrival, they can apply for asylum. However, unlike other asylum seekers, Afghans will be authorized to work on arrival, and will have already received medical screening.”
She told Amjambo Africa that Ascentria Care Alliance will resettle about 100 Afghan evacuees in New Hampshire, where the housing crisis is also severe. “We are receiving many calls asking how to help, donate, volunteer, or offer accommodation. We will undertake community outreach, cultural awareness training. In brief, we want to let people be informed about the arrivals of Afghan evacuees who need help,” Ferrara said.
Catholic Charities of Maine issued the following statement in response to calls they’ve been receiving: “Until we know who is arriving, it is challenging for us to sort and store goods such as clothing and furniture. Gift cards are always appreciated, as they enable us/clients to purchase the sizes and season needed for clothing, or to assist in setting up a new household with essentials like bedding and cleaning products.”
Some refugees in Africa and other parts of the world who have been waiting for resettlement in the U.S. have expressed fading hope for their cases, as the U.S. turns its focus on Afghanistan.
“The suffering we face is almost the same. Can it be that the U.S. will forget us?” asked Jean Clément, a Congolese who spoke from Mayukwayukwa Refugee Camp in Zambia.
The U.S. government has announced a refugee cap of 125,000 people for fiscal year 2022. Africa remains on top of other regions of the world, with 40,000 refugees to be resettled in the U.S. in fiscal year 2022. However, DeAngelis remains worried that the program will need renewed muscle to meet the target.
“It is a legitimate concern for [refugees] to worry. The resettlement program is still suffering [cuts] from the COVID-19 pandemic and from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, I think COVID-19 will continue to impact our ability to reach 125,000. We will need to adequately address the global pandemic and alter refugee processing to include remote interview options,” she said.
Amjambo Africa publisher Georges Budagu penned an editorial on the fall of Kabul. “We must do much more to help the people of Afghanistan and around the world. It is the moral obligation of the world’s most powerful countries to act quickly to alleviate human suffering before it is too late,” he wrote in mid-August.