Connecticut welcomes Afghan evacuees with open arms — and driver’s licenses
On Sept. 15, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that the White House would ask Connecticut to accept “as many as 310 Afghan refugees for resettlement in Connecticut.” The effort has gone better than expected.
As of March 18, more than 700 Afghans had come to live in the state, more than double the original target, thanks to a well-coordinated public-private partnership created by Lamont and strong public support.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Chris George, executive director of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, or IRIS, one of the state’s two major nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies. “We’ve never resettled this many people, or gotten this much support — individual volunteers, groups, donations — in such a short period of time.”
The response “really is remarkable. Connecticut is a welcoming state for refugees and immigrants,” said Susan Schnitzer, president and CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, or CIRI, based in Bridgeport, the other major resettlement agency.
The resettlement has been achieved despite sharp reductions in federal funding over the last four years, a result of drastic cuts in refugee admissions by the Trump administration. While all agencies felt the cuts, they caused what had been the largest resettlement agency in Greater Hartford, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford, to halt its refugee resettlement program.
“We in Connecticut can be proud, though it’s a shame Catholic Charities isn’t still with us,” said Robert J. Fishman, executive director of the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition, a policy and advocacy group.
Now George, Schnitzer, Fishman and others must hit the reset button and welcome an influx of emigres from the war in Ukraine. President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the U.S. would welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, some number of whom can be expected to resettle in Connecticut, home to an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian-Americans.
Schnitzer said Thursday she was “thrilled” with Biden’s announcement and said CIRI’s recent experience resettling Afghans has prepared the agency and its community partners “for expedited and supportive resettlement and accompanying legal services.”
The Afghans who’ve been arriving since September are among some 76,000 of their countrymen, most of whom worked for or were otherwise connected to Americans and were evacuated in a massive 17-day airlift as the Taliban took over the country in August.
Technically, most are not refugees; state officials use the term “evacuees.” A refugee is an alien who has been vetted and certified by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program as having experienced, or having a well-founded fear of, persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. However, the process is lengthy and complex, taking up to two years after acceptance into the program.
While a few dozen had special visas or were completing the refugee process, most of the newly arrived Afghans, 649 of 703 as of March 18, were admitted through “humanitarian parole,” a process which is sometimes offered to people who need to be moved immediately. Also, the government created the Afghan Placement & Assistance Program to provide initial relocation support services for Afghan parolees admitted to the U.S. from August 20, 2021 through March 31, 2022. Officials expect nearly three dozen more Afghans by March 31.
Typically, the Afghans were flown to a “safe haven” military base in countries such as Qatar or Kuwait, extensively vetted with background checks, medical screenings including COVID shots and other measures, then flown to military bases in the U.S. From there they were resettled in communities where they had relatives or where a resettlement agency had the capacity to take them.
While offering work authorization and some benefits such as SNAP food stamps, the Afghan parole is temporary, lasting two years, and does not offer a path to a green card or citizenship. The Biden administration has also offered “temporary protected status” to other Afghans, which affords 18 months of similar benefits.
Advocates are pushing Congress to pass a law that would allow Afghans who often risked their lives for the U.S. to remain here permanently if they so choose. Since passage of the law is not a certainty, Afghan parolees are being urged to apply for asylum (the New York Times reported last week that the Biden administration has finalized a plan to revamp the asylum process, with the goal of reducing the average time from five years to six months). Schnitzer said CIRI is adding legal staff to help Afghans apply for parole or asylum.
It should be noted that the Afghans represent only a tiny portion of the world’s estimated 22.5 million refugees, many of whom wait years in camps until they can come to the U.S. or other receiving countries. In a well-publicized example, the family of Somalia-born U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first African-born member of Congress, lived in a camp in Kenya for four years before coming to the U.S. At that they were relatively lucky; the average camp stay is seven years, Schnitzer said.
Settling the Afghans who made it to this country was made more challenging by the Trump administration’s drastic reductions in the number of refugees allowed in. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, the cap stood at 110,000. Trump reduced it every year, down to 15,000 in his final year in office (and only about 12,000 came, due in part to COVID restrictions).
Trump’s action drew criticism on both humanitarian and financial grounds. Federal funding, which goes through national resettlement agencies such as Church World Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and six others to local agencies such as CIRI and IRIS, is per capita, based on the number of people served. Fewer people, less money.
The agencies had to tighten their belts, but Catholic Charities took a bigger hit, closing 31 of 71 programs across the country, according to the National Catholic Reporter. One of them was Hartford’s, which had a decades-long tradition of resettling Southeast Asian, Kosovar, Syrian and other refugees, sometimes as many as 300 a year.
Hartford Catholic Charities spokesman John P. Noonan said even though his agency is not currently resettling refugee families, if asked, it will make its other programs and services available to families being resettled by other agencies “until such time as we are able to resettle families again ourselves.”
Last year, President Biden raised the refugee cap to 62,500, with a promise to raise it to 125,000 in the coming year. Catholic Charities officials across the country hope this will get them back up to speed helping refugees.
But when that door closed in Hartford, another opened down-state. Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, which had resettled some Russian refugees in the 1990s, stepped up and resettled 32 Afghans and then worked with the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition, pivoting away from its usual lobbying role, and settled two families — 10 people — in two apartments in East Hartford provided by Goodwin University.
The major agencies used slightly different resettlement methods. Along with using its caseworkers to resettle Afghans, IRIS has developed a co-sponsor model, in which the agency trains and vets volunteer community or faith-based groups, which then do most of the resettlement tasks. The groups agree to raise at least $10,000 for the family, find affordable housing, collect furniture and other household items, help access public benefits such as HUSKY/Medicaid and SNAP/food stamps, enroll children in school and facilitate job searches, among other tasks.
Chris George said about 30 groups are participating in the program and have settled about a third of the more than 430 Afghan evacuees IRIS has welcomed to Connecticut.
CIRI uses the “community integration model,” where agency caseworkers and managers work with the refugees on all aspects of their initial resettlement. Volunteer groups — from faith-based groups and even the Bridgeport Rotary Club — help with things such as setting up homes before the family moves in and showing the newcomers how to navigate their new communities. CIRI has resettled more than 220 Afghan evacuees, Schnitzer said, noting that the number varies slightly with “secondary migration,” people who land in other states then come to Connecticut, or vice-versa.
The thrust of both the IRIS and CIRI programs is independence and self-sufficiency. “We don’t adopt families,” says the narrator in an IRIS training video.
Gov. Lamont appointed an Afghan evacuee coordinator, Elizabeth Nalley of the state Department of Social Services, and created a public-private-nonprofit task force to coordinate state support for the resettlement. The task force met weekly through December and now meets monthly. Schnitzer said it did its job.
“We got help a lot more quickly. Everybody was really focusing on how to make this work well for the people coming in,” she said. She noted that the agencies continued to resettle refugees from other countries as the Afghans were arriving.
The task force built a structure of services around the agencies’ resettlement program. For example, on Feb. 28, the Department of Motor Vehicles held a DMV Day, when evacuees could take the test for learner’s permits in Dari or Pashto. The Department of Labor offered several job-related programs, one in collaboration with the Connecticut Restaurant Association. Other agencies offered help with housing, health care and other services.
Housing was a challenge; a shortage of affordable housing has been a longstanding problem in the state, so the agencies used temporary housing such as hotels until they could get the families into permanent residences, where nearly 90% now reside. As with other immigrant groups, some new arrivals were traumatized by the sudden uprooting to a distant country. Schnitzer said she is looking for counselors who speak Farsi, Dari or Pashto. Task force members are seeking other mental health resources.
And, as with every other immigrant group who came to Connecticut fleeing war, persecution or natural disaster, most Afghans are looking to work for a better life. The arrivals are “from all across the board,” George said, from university-education translators to truck drivers.
Finally, as with every other immigrant group, some of the people are remarkable. Here are two:
Hossna Samadi’s husband worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development on projects including women’s education, something the Taliban opposed. Fearing for the safety of his family, he brought his wife and two small children to New Haven on special visas in 2016 and then commuted back to Afghanistan until last summer to continue his work.
Hossna learned English. She has nearly completed an associate’s degree at Gateway Community College and plans to start on a bachelor’s in the fall. She works at a program associated with New Haven’s innovative Sanctuary Kitchen at CitySeed, where refugee and immigrant chefs hone their culinary and English skills while learning the food business. She volunteers as a translator, speaker and cultural ambassador for IRIS and as an advocate for fellow Afghani and other refugee women.
She plans to make women’s rights and education her life’s work: “I want to help those who haven’t had opportunity,” she said in an interview. This is inspired by her own experience. As a child in the 1990s, she had to go to a secret school in a basement, “like growing up in a cage,” because the Taliban, then in their first rule of the country, didn’t allow women’s schooling.
When the Taliban took over again last summer she was distraught. “I was up all night, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe we were going backward.” Her husband has rejoined the family, her children are in the third and fifth grade in New Haven, and they are going forward.
Emal Walizada is a college-educated IT specialist and an inventor, having won awards for a robotic device that detects the presence of explosives. He had an IT business in Kabul developing software for management systems, accounting and other applications.
When a friend alerted him that the Taliban were taking the city, he had to make a quick decision. He had family and business ties to the Americans and the (disintegrating) Afghan government.
“I was not safe,” he said.
He dropped everything and headed for the airport. He said in an interview he was there for six days with no food and very little water. “I saw people drop from dehydration,” he said.
He finally got a flight to Qatar, was there for 15 days, and then got to Fort Dix, N.J. He was there until late January, living in a room with 46 other people. He had lost everything: the Taliban destroyed his office and his PC server and other computer equipment. He lost his house, car and bank account. Worse, his father died of COVID-19.
But his brother, who had worked for a U.S. agency and had gotten out earlier, lived in Hartford with their mother and sister. Emal got on a bus by himself. It almost sounds like a cliche immigrant story, but he indeed had just $5 in his pocket.
No matter, he got to work. A fellow Afghan connected him with Bob Fishman, who in turn referred him to a nonprofit called International Hartford, started in 2016 by former lawyer and state legislator Art Feltman, which helps refugees and immigrants start and sustain businesses.
To help Emal get on his feet, Feltman reached out to a successful immigrant businesswoman named Maggie Drag, who came from Poland three decades ago as a teenager and started a home care agency, Euro-American Connections, in Berlin. She immediately sent a check.
“Immigrants helping immigrants,” she said through a spokesman.
Emal just got his driver’s license. He has a job stacking shelves in a pharmacy warehouse and is happy to have it, but he is looking forward to being his own boss in his own field. And when that happens, he said, he will pay it forward and help arriving immigrants. He has time — he is 23 years old. He said he is “very happy” to be in Hartford.
Helping Afghans or other immigrants is not a one-way street. Immigrants are very good for the economy. Feltman said immigrants are twice as likely as other Americans to start a business; they launch 30% of new firms in Connecticut. He said there are more than 37,000 foreign-born entrepreneurs in Connecticut. While immigrants comprise 15% of the state’s population, they own 24% of its businesses, he said.
By starting a business, immigrants avoid a problem Feltman sees regularly: being underemployed because their skills or credentials from their native countries aren’t recognized here.
Fishman is working with Feltman and the Community Renewal Team’s Women’s Empowerment Center to help Afghan women start businesses in Greater Hartford.
More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland and other neighboring countries as the Russian invasion of their country grinds on. Some have even flown to Mexico to try to enter the U.S. from the south. Biden’s announcement Thursday came in response to growing public sympathy and support for welcoming more Ukrainians into this country.
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, the administration had granted temporary protected status to Ukrainians who were in the country as of March 1. Also, U.S. embassies and consulates in Eastern Europe have been expediting visa processing for immediate family members of U.S. citizens but reportedly are overwhelmed.
Politico reported Thursday that not all of the 100,000 Ukrainians will be admitted through the refugee admission program or during this fiscal year. “A full range of pathways will be utilized, including humanitarian parole and immigrant or nonimmigrant visas.”
Can Connecticut handle another wave of arrivals?
Chris George answered simply: “Yes.”