Home is Where The Heart Is: Part II

original article published October 12, 2021 by the Tri-City Voice

When news of the Taliban takeover of Kabul hit the airwaves in early August, it caused concern and fear throughout the world. No place felt it more deeply than Fremont, California, home to one of the largest Afghan populations outside Afghanistan. The city immediately set up a website to help gather donations, as well as listing volunteer opportunities and resources provided by local non-profits, to provide a one-stop-shop help center for incoming Afghan refugees. 

Paula Manczuk-Hannay, the Human Services Development Officer whose contact information is listed on the website, describes the response: “Our site got picked up by the New York Times, so it kind of blew up in a good way. That first weekend I probably received over 100 emails and at least 25 phone calls from all over the country. Requests from people who wanted to volunteer and donate items came flooding in.”

The two Bay Area resettlement agencies authorized by the federal government to receive refugees,  the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), have been stretched thin. According to Jordane Tofighi of the IRC, they have received 137 individuals as of September 30. Holly Taines White of JFCS reports that they have welcomed 115.

To put this in perspective, White explains that in the 15 years she has been at JFCS, the highest number of people that they have resettled in one year was 183, which included refugees from many different populations around the world. That’s roughly 15 per month. “So for one month (August), for us to resettle 80 refugees from one country, well, this is just on an entirely different scale than what we’re normally dealing with.”

White estimates that there are approximately 50,000 Afghans on military bases in the United States and around the world, many of them hoping to connect with friends and family in America. “Normally we find out a family is coming 4-6 weeks ahead of time,” she explains. “What’s happening now is we’re getting families coming to us with only 2 days notice. It has been a major challenge for us to be ready in time.” She adds that the numbers are going to stay really high in the foreseeable future. “There’s just so many people out there trying to get here.”

Tofighi agrees. “For our team of staff, it has been a huge undertaking. It is a historic moment in the US history of resettlement and we stand by our commitment, excited and ready for the challenge. Currently, we have 61 cases/ 174 individuals in the pipeline to come to be resettled by the IRC Oakland office. This number will likely increase, throughout October especially.”

For many of us living in the United States, the journey that these Afghan families have taken to get here is unimaginable. Images in the news showing the Kabul Airport surrounded by mobs of people desperate to escape seem surreal and distant. 

Having the right paperwork in order to leave the country is the first big hurdle. A Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is the most common pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government. The State Department is also accepting Priority 1 (P1) and Priority 2 (P2) referrals, which include those who worked for US-based media companies or NGOs. The process can be lengthy and complex, taking weeks, months, and sometimes years.

Says White, “When people arrive here they are clearly relieved. Most of them have been living with a high level of fear and trauma for a long time, and have been trying to get out of Afghanistan for a long time. Their eligibility for coming here is based on the fact that they worked with the U.S. in some capacity, either as an interpreter, or they worked at the U.S. embassy, etc., so they’ve been targets of the Taliban for years.”

Once they arrive on US soil, it’s like starting over. Says White, “It’s not like they get here and suddenly everything’s roses. That trauma doesn’t just go away. They have a lot to work through. Our job is to build on their strengths, help them get launched, and also address all of their challenges.”

Services that the IRC and JFCS provide include: welcoming refugees at the airport, rides from the airport, temporary housing, furniture and furnishings, food and clothing, ESL enrollment, school registration, daycare, assistance with health benefits and medical appointments, legal counseling, cultural orientation, employment and career development, mental health counseling and social support groups, DMV registration, financial counseling, and financial assistance. Says White, “We help them navigate all of the different systems and we advocate on their behalf.”

Other organizations rising to the challenge include the Afghan Coalition of Fremont, the Afghan American Community Organization (AACO), Help The Afghans, the United Afghan Association (UAA), the Afghan Elderly Association, the Afghan American Women’s Association (AAWA), and the Muslim American Society Social Services Foundation (MAS-SSF), to name a few. Local mosques and faith based groups are also leading efforts such as donation drives. East Bay Cities like Fremont and Hayward have collaborated as well, creating a central donation fund (with over $230,000 collected so far) and securing a central warehouse to store donated goods.

Zuhal Bahaduri is co-founder of The 5 Pillars, a local group born from the crisis that is focusing on donation efforts. She’s a local advocate who is deeply involved in the refugee resettlement effort and whose own family is still in Afghanistan. She has been impressed with the outpouring of support. “It is truly a remarkable scene of the power of community. It’s an image of hope, sincere love, and pure life.” 

And perhaps a reminder that we all take our freedom for granted far too often.

For More Information and For Ways You Can Help:

City of Fremont Afghan Relief Help Fund: https://www.fremont.gov/ARHelp

Afghan American Women’s Association: https://a-awa.org/

Afghan Coalition: https://www.afghancoalition.org/

AFG Diaspora Hub: https://www.afgdiasporahub.com/

International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue.org/

Jewish Family & Community Services: https://jfcs-eastbay.org/urgent-afghan-evacuation/

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