Newly arrived Afghans test a refugee resettlement system that's rebuilding on the fly
Northern Virginia is home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the U.S., making it a prime destination for new arrivals. One refugee organization is scrambling to prepare.
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After the dramatic airlift out of Kabul, tens of thousands of Afghans have been stuck in a holding pattern in the U.S. Many are housed for now on military bases, as we heard yesterday. They're awaiting resettlement in communities across the country, and organizations that work with refugees in those communities are racing to get ready. NPR's Joel Rose visited one office that's already busy helping resettled Afghans.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Most days, newly arrived Afghans fill the lobby of this church basement in Fairfax County, Va., outside of Washington - families with young kids, young couples, older adults. They're here for help with their resettlement cases and to stock up on donated toiletries and housewares that are piled everywhere.
KHAN: Today, I come here because I need some stuff, like the sheets.
ROSE: This man asked us to call him simply Khan. He worked in the Afghan government and requested that we not use his full name because his wife and family are still in danger in Kabul. For now, Khan is living with one of his sons who's going to college in Virginia and says he feels welcome here.
KHAN: The people is very good. They are very honest. And they help us a lot. Thanks to them.
ROSE: Northern Virginia is home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the U.S. That makes it a prime destination for new arrivals. Kristyn Peck is the CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area. Since August, Peck says her organization has helped as many people as it did all of last year.
KRISTYN PECK: For us, that feels like a surge already.
ROSE: And Peck expects to get even busier.
PECK: People are coming with really pressing, immediate needs. Sometimes it's just as basic as clothing, showers, food and then trying to make sure that they have a place to stay that night and then move them into permanent housing as quickly as possible.
ROSE: The refugee resettlement system is rebuilding on the fly after deep cuts during the Trump administration. Last year, the U.S. accepted the lowest number of refugees since the modern resettlement program began. Now Congress has authorized more than $6 billion to support Afghan resettlement, and the nonprofits that do this work are scrambling to prepare. The numbers are daunting - 53,000 Afghans are living on military bases in the U.S. Roughly 14,000 more will be coming over soon from military bases overseas. The vast majority are not technically refugees. They're entering the U.S. under what's known as humanitarian parole, and they have lots of questions about how it works.
DAVID MUTOMBO: It's a new country. So most of the time when they arrive, they don't have a clue about their next step.
ROSE: David Mutombo is the head of Virginia operations for Lutheran Social Services. The office is short-staffed, so he's filling in to do intake with new clients.
MUTOMBO: So the case is assigned to us, but the name under the case number was not matching their...
ROSE: Like this newlywed couple. She's a U.S. citizen; he's Afghan. They escaped together from Kabul in August, along with the man's brother. They asked that we not use their full names because his parents are still in Afghanistan, where they've been threatened by the Taliban. The woman asked to be identified only by her initials N.T. She says they spent a few weeks on military bases in Italy and New Jersey before coming back to her home in Virginia.
N T: Right now the hardest thing is, basically, just not knowing what their status is. We don't have any of their documents back yet. We don't have any of their, like, work permits. We don't have anything yet. His main struggle is he doesn't know where to start and what to start.
ROSE: What's next for Afghans with humanitarian parole will look a lot like what refugees typically get. They're eligible for housing assistance and help finding a job, but that all depends on roughly 200 resettlement offices like this one doing more and doing it faster than they ever have before.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Fairfax County, Va.
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