Advertisement
Op-ed

Resettling Afghan refugees in Baltimore and beyond among the most complex ‘humanitarian challenges in American history’ | GUEST COMMENTARY

Afghan refugees now arriving in Baltimore survived a traumatic war in their home country. During last year’s frantic evacuation, they typically brought little with them to the “safe havens” set up by the U.S. government, where they received their initial welcome while undergoing processing and vetting.

Now, these new arrivals are being resettled in local communities by nonprofit organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Baltimore has welcomed our new neighbors with kindness and hope, and they’ve been settled into new homes here. But the work is just getting started, and it will take a community effort.

Advertisement

The resettlement of Afghans is one of the most complex, massive and unprecedented logistical and humanitarian challenges in American history. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the evacuation was the largest since the Vietnam War, airlifting 120,000 individuals in just two weeks.

For four years, the Trump administration worked to dismantle the infrastructure and capacity of the United States for refugee resettlement, setting a resettlement goal in 2020 of just 15,000 people. This past year, IRC and other NGOs had the incredible task of not only scaling up to meet an increased resettlement goal of 125,000, but also resettling over 70,000 Afghan allies.

Advertisement

This has been a monumental task for humanitarian organizations. In Baltimore alone, the IRC has resettled over 500 refugees and Afghan humanitarian parolees since Oct. 1, a 190% increase compared to the previous year. The number of IRC staff in Baltimore has doubled in order to meet this unprecedented need.

The IRC and our partners have successfully resettled over 15,000 refugees in Baltimore over the last 20 years. We help refugees restart their lives with essential services including housing, employment, adult and youth education, cultural orientation, immigration legal services and connection to health providers. Given the current national shortage in affordable housing, the IRC now covers hotel costs for newly arriving individuals and families until initial housing is identified and other concerns addressed, including food security, essential supplies, emergency cash, a health and safety orientation, and support applying for benefits and then employment, schools and more.

This kind of mobilization is not flawless, and it is not without its challenges. This publication and others have reported on the challenges of some refugees in getting necessary assistance, and delays in leaving hotels for initial housing. No one wants to stay in a hotel or temporary accommodation for several weeks or even months, and these challenges also compound the trauma and upheaval of the evacuation.

We acknowledge those challenges and are moving swiftly amid an operation this big to resettle Afghans as quickly as possible. The challenges are many: The national housing shortage limits housing options for all Americans, including refugees, and typical housing vacancy rates are significantly lower than past years. COVID-19 has also brought about many delays in accessing benefits and services, especially health care.

Our staff and exceptional community partners are rising to meet the moment. Under rapid timelines and constrained resources, we’re finding suitable housing and welcoming new families each day. We have come this far thanks to the grace and generosity of Baltimore.

Here’s what we need to finish the job:

First, we ask for patience and understanding — cultural understanding of the challenges and hardships facing Afghans settling into a new home, and an understanding of the scale and complexity of this operation.

Second, we will continue to look to government agencies and to community partners for cooperation, resources and support. Partners have already stepped up with thousands of tons of food and supplies; made housing available literally overnight, and offered social and emotional support to refugees. Baltimore has been a welcoming community for refugees for decades and continues to be so today.

Advertisement

Lastly, we encourage anyone interested in supporting Afghan parolees to volunteer or donate, at the individual or organization level. Some partners have raised concerns about the speed of this effort, but the only necessary requirements to help are a background check and essential safety training. Those interested in supporting our work can contact our office to learn more (rescue.org/united-states/baltimore-md).

The IRC in Baltimore and resettlement agencies around the country have been asked to resettle people at a speed, number and complexity like never before. We are proud to serve these new arrivals, and confident that as the operation unfolds, our new Afghan neighbors will settle in safely, securely and with hope for their future.

Ruben Chandrasekar (Baltimore@Rescue.org) is executive director of the IRC in Maryland.


Advertisement