By Ellen Emerson White & Rebecca Garland
The crisis in Afghanistan last August mobilized the US public in ways not seen in decades. The outpouring of support was overwhelming as our newsfeeds regaled us daily with stories of families being airlifted out of Kabul and arriving at US military bases looking dazed, but safe. As overtaxed resettlement agencies struggled to meet the needs of these new arrivals, private citizens and community groups stepped up to help with extraordinary offers of housing, jobs and friendship. Within 6 months, some 76,000 Afghans had been resettled in cities and towns across the country, 350 of them in Rhode Island.
Now, a year later, the headlines are largely gone. Public attention has waned, partly eclipsed by the crisis in Ukraine and partly the result of seeing that efforts to support Afghans may involve commitments that last years, rather than months. The simple reality is that it takes a long time to rebuild a life, and unfortunately, this is particularly true for many resettled Afghans. Imagine being evacuated from your home, leaving friends and family members behind in a war-torn land, and then arriving in a country where you don't speak the language and the cultural, religious and gender norms are all shockingly unfamiliar. The success of Afghans in the US will depend on longterm investments in employment, healthcare, housing, education etc. The adjustment could take a long time.
Adding to the stress is the fact that most Afghans do not know whether they will be able to remain in the US, since they were admitted to the country under a program known as Humanitarian Parole, which grants recipients only two years of temporary status. Afghans are not legally classified as refugees and currently have no path to citizenship or any sense of permanency. Approximately 40 percent of them will be eligible for special immigrant visas (SIVs), but the rest will need to apply for asylum, which is expensive, requires legal assistance, and can take years to be approved. Most estimates indicate that at least 90 percent of current Afghan asylum applications are being denied and the backlog is extensive. In contrast, people from Ukraine are being admitted as refugees, a status that allows them to receive federal assistance, a direct path to citizenship, and a more secure permanent status.
We at Beautiful Day are deeply concerned by the uncertain legal status of resettled Afghans and by the waning public attention that threatens to leave them without the support services they need. Polls indicate that most Americans favor a pathway to permanent status for Afghans, but hate crimes based on xenophobia and islamophobia are on the rise and often go unreported. And as social services and rent subsidies expire, Afghan families are experiencing increasing financial hardships, even homelessness. This is the time for more investment of resources and attention, not less!
Since the first Afghans arrived in Rhode Island last October, we at Beautiful Day have been seeking ways to build relationships and trust. We are proceeding slowly, letting the families take the lead in showing us how we can best meet their needs. We have accepted several Afghan trainees, but they have all left early after finding permanent employment, indicating that their job training needs may be more short-term. We now plan to offer a shorter training program that might better serve their needs.
Other efforts at outreach have involved including Beautiful Day granola bars and hummus in food baskets delivered by the local food bank along with messages of welcome and information about our programs translated into Pashto and Dari. We have also solicited donations of wool rugs from our newsletter subscribers (i.e. YOU!) when we learned at a focus group of Afghan women that much of family life at home takes place on such rugs. We delivered the rugs and were invariably invited to tea, giving us even more opportunities to develop personal connections.
We have also invited families to visit our facility to see what we do. During these visits, we learned that many Afghan women and girls are feeling isolated at home. We have begun to reach out to them through our Refugee Youth Program and through a partnership with the Refugee Dream Center, a local refugee service organization that runs a support group for Afghan women. This group will soon be coming to Beautiful Day to cook a meal in our kitchen and to share it with American women who are eager to make new friends. Activities like these will go far in promoting the kinds of intercultural friendships that are so critical to helping newcomers feel welcome.
There is still much to be done. A piece of bipartisan legislation known as the Afghan Adjustment Act has recently been reintroduced in Congress, which would allow resettled Afghans to apply for permanent residency after living in the US for a year. This would lift them out of their current legal limbo. We encourage you to call your congressional representatives and urge them to vote yes to the Afghan Adjustment Act.
The headlines may be gone, but now is an especially important time to get involved. We are seeking volunteers to work with resettled Afghans in several capacities:
1) Mentor an Afghan youth or adult.
2) Join our Afghan women's cooking group and make friends with an Afghan woman.
3) We can always use more wool rugs and help delivering them. You could experience Afghan hospitality for yourself and enjoy a cup of tea!
4) There may be opportunities to deliver food and care packages to Afghan families. Let us know if this would interest you.
Please contact Liza Sutton, our Volunteer Coordinator, if interested.