The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan led to panicked residents rushing the Kabul airport in an effort to escape the country amid fears of retaliation and repression under the new regime. Agencies like RefugeeOne in Chicago will now help many Afghans relocate.
“This isn’t just some abstract conflict that’s happening across the globe,” said Jims Porter, the group’s communications and advocacy manager. “It’s really impacting hundreds of Afghans already living here in Chicago, many of whom have families that are either trying to flee or are stuck in Afghanistan right now.”
Porter recently joined Reset to discuss the current state of evacuation, the work of refugee resettlement and the role Chicago might play in welcoming Afghan refugees in the future.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
Who is evacuating Afghanistan?
Porter: The U.S. has been frantically trying to evacuate people primarily through the Refugee Admissions Program — which RefugeeOne participates in — and through special immigrant visas, which are intended to protect U.S. allies in precarious situations like this. But many Afghans weren’t granted U.S. visas in time or couldn’t get to the airport where U.S. officials were trying to rush through thousands of applications. … Over the weekend, we received information that the situation has led to an indefinite suspension of SIV [special immigrant visa] evacuation flights. So most of those who were evacuated had already started the process for resettlement, but everybody else is kind of left in a state of limbo and want to wait and see if they’re able to flee to neighboring countries.
Will we see refugees in Chicago?
Porter: It’s a little bit hard to predict how many folks will be coming to Chicago in the near future. RefugeeOne has already received paperwork for two Afghan families that we will be welcoming, … so we do anticipate to see an influx in arrivals.
What’s the history of Afghan refugees in Chicago? How is this affecting them?
Porter: RefugeeOne has welcomed in Afghan refugees and primarily SIV holders since 2014. … Over the last six or seven years or so, we’ve welcomed about 500 Afghans to Chicago and we see a really strong community of support among them.
One of the SIVs that we welcomed in recent years is a leader within his community here in Chicago, and he’s been organizing and advocating for expedited reunification of Afghan SIVs and their families. His motivation is primarily that the Taliban recently targeted and killed his brother as retaliation for this man’s support of the U.S. entities overseas. This is a very real issue for him and his family as he tries to get those family members who are still in Afghanistan out of harm’s way.
What does resettling a refugee really entail?
Porter: Refugee resettlement is really all about welcoming refugee families … and helping them build a new life here. That involves everything from finding them housing and providing case management services.
We have a staff that speaks about 35 languages and shares many of the cultural backgrounds with the refugees that we support. … We offer a whole host of culturally sensitive social services, everything from English classes to youth programming to employment assistance, even a comprehensive mental health program, which is really important, especially for individuals who have experienced significant trauma before getting to us.
How have Trump administration policies affected resettlement?
Porter: During his last year in office, President Trump set the refugee admissions ceiling — which is adjusted every year to allot for different numbers of refugees to come into the country — he set that at a record low of 18,000 [admittees]. You can compare that to an annual average of about 95,000, so a huge plummet.
[Resettlement work] is very unpredictable. That’s something resettlement agencies have gotten used to over the years, especially over the past couple years under the Trump administration, where things were changing every day and numbers [of admitted refugees] continue to plummet. … Now that we see [resettlement pick up again], we’re trying to rebuild that infrastructure. But it’s really challenging to know what languages we need to have interpreters in and what services we need to provide that are unique to the health care and mental health care needs of the individuals who are arriving.
How can people help?
Porter: We really need everybody who cares about this issue to ask their legislators, to urge the [Biden] administration to protect our Afghan allies.
As we hope to see an influx in refugee admissions in the coming months, we’re going to need a lot more volunteers to support them as they adjust to life in the U.S. … Consider signing up as a mentor to an adult or a tutor to a student and also create a co-sponsor team, a group of friends or family or even congregation members who help welcome a refugee family by raising funds to support them and walking alongside them as they navigate their new life here.