[Episcopal News Service] Aug. 30 commemorates two years since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, marking the end of nearly 20 years of war in the country. Since then, more than 97,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the United States as part of the State Department’s Operation Allies Welcome program.
The war in Afghanistan — the longest armed conflict in U.S. military history— resulted in a Taliban victory over the Islamic Republic, which has created a humanitarian crisis that’s displaced 1.6 million Afghan nationals.
To better understand and respond to the challenges of serving the Afghan refugee population, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations hosted an Aug. 23 webinar, “Two Years Later: Fulfilling our Promise to Our Afghan Allies and Neighbors.”
“We need congressional action,” said Lindsey Warburton, policy adviser for the Office of Government Relations, who facilitated the discussion. “[Afghan refugees’] lack of permanent status leads to a lot of complications.”
Afghan refugees in the United States continue to face uncertainty — including additional risk of persecution and harm — despite large-scale efforts from the federal government, churches and nonprofit organizations to welcome them. Some Afghan refugees are eligible to enter the United States by either the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program or the Afghanistan Family Reunification program. Afghans who are in the United States under temporary humanitarian parole fear the possibility of being deported back to Afghanistan.
Afghan nationals are entitled to the Special Immigrant program, but its application process is long and difficult, according to webinar panelist Campbell Dunsmore, policy and advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian non-governmental organization based in New York City.
“Our immigration system at every level is securely backlogged; each pathway takes too much time,” she said. “A lot of the folks who have already applied for the [Special Immigrant] visa are still awaiting processing.”
Webinar panelists represented affiliate organizations from The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They explained what actions have been taken to help Afghan refugees so far, as well as what still needs to be done in the future.
“[Afghans families] really require much more assistance in terms of cultural education and health, particularly mental health. The cultural differences are sometimes really impacting the well-being of our clients,” said Dario Lipovac, refugee services director of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston in Texas. “Also, I think one single most important thing I would ask everyone is to plead with our Congress to do something about family reunification.”
Some refugees who have entered through the family reunification program do not have a path to permanent residency.
Refugee resettlement organization’s staff work to help refugees become self-sufficient, which has been somewhat trickier among Afghan refugees who retain tribal and smaller clan-like social structures. Such close ties can make it more difficult to find housing, because Afghans rely on each other to support their families. “They’re leaning on each other,” said Lans Rothfusz, a co-leader of the Norman Coalition for Refugees, an all-volunteer interfaith nonprofit dedicated to resettling refugees and asylum-seekers in Norman, Oklahoma.
A major challenge for the coalition is long-term volunteer retention, according to Rothfusz.
“We had a constellation of teams dealing with housing, food, and health and employment and legal. Imagine all those things, all those needs that [Afghan refugees] had, we had to rapidly put together other teams that can help them in that regard,” he said, calling the work “overwhelming” at times.
In Oklahoma, the Norman Coalition for Refugees established a special driver’s education program for Afghan refugees, as well as a summer school program to help Afghan children catch up with their studies, Rothfusz said during the webinar.
During the webinar, Giovana Oaxaca, program director of migration policy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, addressed how the ELCA is advocating for Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to provide special immigration status and support for at-risk Afghan nationals. Efforts have included advocates from the ELCA meeting with lawmakers to voice their concerns.
“These are a lot of families, children who came alongside their parents or other family members who faced the gauntlet that is our very convoluted, complex immigration system,” she said. “Advocacy does make a difference.”
The webinar ended with Warburton providing links to resources on how to continue supporting Afghan refugees through advocacy work, including the Office of Government Relations’ guide to effective advocacy for Episcopalians and a link to call on Congress to support the Afghan Adjustment Act through the ELCA’s website.
Episcopalians can learn more about the church’s Afghan refugee advocacy on the Office of Governments Relations’ website.
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.