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The Afghan evacuee crisis has helped Connecticut prepare to welcome Ukrainian refugees

Refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring Ukraine arrive to Zahony, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other, leaders in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are offering a hearty welcome.
Anna Szilagyi
Associated Press
Refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring Ukraine arrive to Zahony, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other, leaders in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are offering a hearty welcome.

Last summer, Connecticut became home to more than 700 refugees from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized the capital of Kabul. Less than a year later, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would soon accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees amid the Russian invasion. Connecticut may become home to around 20,000 of them.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “CT welcomes Afghan evacuees with open arms — and drivers licenses,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Tom, you write that more than 700 Afghans have come to live in Connecticut, more than double the original target number, thanks to a public-private nonprofit task force partnership put together by Governor Ned Lamont. Could you tell us a little bit more about this task force and the fact that two long-standing, locally based refugee resettlement agencies are involved?

TC: Sure. When the federal government asked Governor Lamont to initially take some Afghan evacuees, he put together a task force from the immigrant resettlement agencies, the major ones. Those are the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants and the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. The first one is a policy group, and the other two are resettlement agencies.

WSHU: And they’re based locally in Bridgeport and New Haven?

TC: New Haven and Bridgeport, yes, respectively. And the coalition is based in Hartford because it involves working with the Capitol. In addition to that, people from state agencies are on the board, along with some other immigrant specialists. So we had a pretty good cross-section of nonprofits and state government. And they work together very well.

You know, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles had a driver's license day where they offered driver's tests in two of the languages of Afghanistan, Pashto, and Dari. The Department of Housing got involved in helping people find housing. The department of early childhood provided baskets for small children. They appointed a state African refugee coordinator as well from the Department of Social Services to make all the pieces work together. So it was a very effective public-private nonprofit partnership.

WSHU: Now you focus specifically on two of the refugees, Hossna and Emal, and, of course, the driver's licenses that you mentioned. Can you tell us a little bit more about these two people that you focused on?

TC: They're amazing people. Hossna came earlier. Her husband had worked for USAID, which is the United States Agency for International Development. This made him a potential target for the Taliban. They came in 2016. Her husband then commuted back to Afghanistan to continue to work for USAID. He stayed until last summer when it became impossible for him to stay. Hossna is amazing. She learned English. She's getting a college degree. She volunteers to work with other immigrants. She works at Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, which is an amazing place where immigrant and refugee chefs hone their skills and produce various ethnic foods for sale. It is an amazing place. She has two children in the New Haven school system in third grade and fifth grade. So Hossna is leading a very full life and she also speaks on refugee issues and volunteers at Iris, which is an institute for refugees and immigrants. So she's amazing.

Emal is 23 years old. He's a college graduate from a university in Afghanistan and he has done graduate work in India. And he had his own business. He had an IT business creating management systems for various companies and other things. He's also an inventor. He invented a robot that could detect unexploded ordnance, it could detect explosives, and he won some international awards in Asia for this invention. So a very creative young man. His older brother worked for an American contractor, which meant that there was a bulls-eye on his back. He left Afghanistan last summer. He had a terrible ordeal getting out. He had to spend six days at the Kabul airport, with no food, very little water. He finally got to Qatar, and had to spend 17 days there. He got to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and he was there. His brother had brought over their mother and sister and they were living in Hartford. His father had tragically died of COVID. He came to Hartford with $5 in his pocket. He got a job in a pharmacy warehouse, but he is now trying to get his own business up and running. He wants to be a businessman. All of this and he's 23 years old. So really an amazing young man. Keep an eye on him. I think we'll hear from him again.

WSHU: We've had a long line of refugees who have resettled here in Connecticut very successfully over the years. And now, President Joe Biden has pledged to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and about 20,000 might end up in Connecticut. And so we're well poised to be able to receive them?

TC: Well, yes. That's at least that's the word from the resettlement agencies. But you know, it really is an interesting point. European founders of Connecticut were religious refugees, Puritans. Right through the Irish Potato Famine and Pogroms in Europe, World War I, Connecticut has been a welcoming state for refugees, and there's no reason to think that Ukrainians won't be welcomed here also.

As it is, there's a sizable Ukrainian American community in Connecticut; Stanford, Hartford, New Britain. Some in New Haven and Bridgeport also. There are a number of Ukrainian churches. We will welcome them and they will become useful citizens of Connecticut as waves of immigrants before them have.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.
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