Aid organizations across the state are in overdrive preparing to help in the efforts to aid Afghan refugees when they arrive in the state, whenever that might be.
“Right now we’re overwhelmed, the state department is more overwhelmed,” Maxine Stein, president and CEO of the Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts (JFSWM) told MassLive.
Gov. Charlie Baker tweeted on Aug. 17, at the height of the crisis in Afghanistan that Massachusetts is ready to assist Afghan refugees seeking safety and peace in America, but little has been revealed on the state’s plan for the intake.
“Gov. Baker put out a very beautiful statement of welcoming Afghan refugees, which is a wonderful thing, but now we need to figure out how we can best welcome them and what welcome means,” Stein told MassLive.
In the U.S., there is a process by which states are contacted by the federal government if there is a request to assist with resettling or housing asylees and refugees.
At present Baker and his administration have not announced any requests for assistance from the president or federal government related to Afghan refugees being rehoused in Massachusetts.
This doesn’t mean it is not going to come eventually and aid groups are busy preparing for that eventuality.
For the JFSWM and other aid groups; including the International Institute of New England and Ascentria Care Alliance, a litany of work is being undertaken to prepare for the Afghan people that could be arriving any day.
Stein was not able to give too much detail on where the refugees might be placed or in what number because in part, things are still being organized. What she could say is that areas in the Berkshires and Framingham are possible locations her organization is looking at, but nothing is set in stone.
Jeff Kinney, chief of strategic development at Ascentria Care Alliance said that his organization has the capacity to help up to 200 humanitarian parolees within a 100-mile radius of Springfield.
Humanitarian parole, according to the immigration laws of the U.S., generally refers to those with official permission to enter and remain temporarily in the country, under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, without formal admission and while remaining an applicant for admission.
He added that Airbnb is one of the many organizations he has been speaking with to home the Afghan people arriving.
The home rental company, Airbnb, announced recently that they will provide 20,000 Afghan refugees free temporary housing globally after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
The organization’s charitable arm, Airbnb.org, said that the cost of accommodating those fleeing the country will be covered with money from Airbnb as well as its Chief Executive Brian Chesky.
“The displacement and resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. and elsewhere are one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. We feel a responsibility to step up,” Chesky posted on Twitter.
Both Kinney and Stein highlighted their dislike of the term parole because it conjures up a negative image of the person seeking U.S. help.
Both organizations use the term parole because it’s the official title given by the U.S. government, but internally prefer the term “evacuees.”
Ascentria is only able to support evacuees for 90 days from the time they arrive. Kinney pointed out to MassLive that this is just not enough time for the people coming into the country from Afghanistan.
“Nationwide, they’re talking about 50,000 of these parolees,” said Kinney. “How do you get 50,000 people through an asylum process where the immigration courts are adjudicating these cases [over] two to three years.”
He said that people coming to the U.S. under these circumstances are typically allowed to stay in the country for a year.
Nonprofit organizations like Stein’s and Kinney’s are going to be leaning heavily on financial support from the public over the coming months and possibly years. There is funding from the state as well as federal, but there has not been an amount of financial support announced, according to Kinney.
“Unless we can raise additional money or the federal government can come up with additional dollars for the rest,” said Kinney, “it’s just not going to be physically possible, financially possible for us to support them beyond their 90-day timeframe.”
There have been talks with Worcester city government, Kinney told MassLive, to try and work out solutions and he said that the city has been very supportive and willing to help in any way they are able.
For dealing with a humanitarian crisis like the refugee situation of Afghanistan, aid groups like Ascentria and the JFSWM come under the auspices of nine U.S. private agencies called voluntary agencies (VOLAG) and one state agency.
They have cooperative agreements with the state department to provide reception and placement services for refugees arriving in the U.S.
The nine VOLAGs are:
- Church World Service.
- Episcopal Migration Ministries.
- Ethiopian Community Development Council.
- HIAS - The Global Jewish Nonprofit.
- International Rescue Committee.
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- World Relief.
“So, our VOLAGs give us the information,” said Stein. “They will be sending anyone who will be designated to come to our program. They will be sending them our way, but they are in overdrive right now.”
Refugees are usually placed in an area where there might already be a population from the same country or that speak the same language to help with acclimatization, Stein told MassLive.
In this case, however, it is slightly more difficult and she added that translators and interpreters are needed.
Language could be the biggest issue. There are between 40 and 59 languages spoken in Afghanistan with Dari/Farsi and Pashto the most widely spoken, with 77% and 48% of the population respectively. Only 6% of the country speak English, according to Translators Without Borders.
“We have several [people] that speak Farsi,” said Stein, and added that “we are certainly searching for somebody who speaks Pashto. I think probably most of us in our country are searching for people who speak Pashto.”
One of the most important things groups like the JFSWM can do when a refugee arrives, Stein told MassLive, is to help take care of the bureaucratic hurdles that they might come across. For those outside the U.S., just applying for a bank account can be a daunting task.
The tweet by the governor, stating Massachusetts is willing to take Afghan refugees caught Stein’s attention.
“I think what welcome means is being able to provide some basic necessities and a little bit more,” said Stein. “So, it was health insurance and healthcare and housing and food and [eventually] the ability to get employment and the ability to get social security.”
Those coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan cannot obtain any permanent benefit under the humanitarian parole visa but can apply for temporary work authorization.
“As humanitarian parolees they do not have the ability to work until they get an official work authorization,” Kinney said. “And when they get here, because they don’t have refugee status. They’re going to need to apply for asylum to be able to stay here legally. They’re typically here for a year.”
Both Stein and Kinney told MassLive that they are not looking for food or clothing donations at this time but urge people that want to help to visit the Ascentria and JFSWM websites.