ADVOCACYNET 385 August 25, 2022
Earlier this year, during a visit to Baltimore, Jenna Whitney came face to face with the challenge confronting Afghan refugees who had been airlifted to the US after the fall of Kabul on August 15 last year. She found it deeply disturbing.
Ms Whitney, a former US government contractor who lives near Annapolis, Maryland, was among scores of concerned Marylanders who visited Afghan families after their arrival in the state from US army bases, following their harrowing escape from Afghanistan.
The refugees were initially placed in two hotels near BWI Airport by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of three nongovernmental agencies hired by the US government to resettle Afghans refugees in Maryland.
After several missions to the hotels to deliver clothes, mobile phones and food, Ms Whitney made her way to the Renaissance Plaza, an apartment block where some of the families had been placed by the IRC after leaving the hotels.
Here she encountered two sisters, Samira I, 24 and her sister Mina, 17. Samira had worked for an NGO in Afghanistan and told Ms Whitney that she and Mina had been moved into the building by the IRC in December. They had no knowledge of the neighborhood, which is considered unsafe by many locals, and were taunted when they went out in search of food. Terrified, the sisters returned to the apartment where they stayed for the next month, relying on Afghan men in the building to visit shops on their behalf.
When Ms Whitney visited the apartment, she found it filthy and bare of furniture except for two beds, a couch and a table. The sisters did not have an assigned IRC caseworker. Mina had not been enrolled in school, as required by federal government regulations. Ms Whitney later wrote: “Samira cried in my arms that day and said that she often wondered if she would have been better off staying in Afghanistan and letting the Taliban kill her.”
Ms Whitney moved the two sisters out of the apartment, at their request, and into her own home. She was further incensed to learn that the IRC had withheld $2,450 given by the US Department of State to cover the basic needs of the sisters during the first 90 days after their arrival.
Shortly after they moved, an IRC official visited the sisters and told them that the IRC had spent $5,191.92 on their rent, furniture and mobile phones, before asking Samira to sign off on the summary. Feeling pressured, Samira declined and took a screenshot of the document which she shared with Ms Whitney.
On February 9, Ms Whitney filed a lawsuit against IRC through a law firm in Baltimore, demanding that the $2,450 be given to the sisters.
In early March Ruben Chandrasekar, the IRC director in Baltimore, wrote to Ms Whitney accusing her and other volunteers in East Baltimore of rejecting the IRC’s offer of collaboration, ignoring the confidentiality of the refugees and “sending repeated messages to various IRC staff and leadership via email and text message, including by utilizing our clients’ personal phones, with accusations, gross factual distortions, and inappropriate demands.”
The letter continued: “These actions and communications do nothing to further the goals I believe we share regarding the successful integration of these new Afghan community members in Maryland.”
The letter ended by asking Ms Whitney not to contact the IRC office again. Other volunteers who work with Ms Whitney and were interviewed for this article said that IRC caseworkers had been instructed not to answer their calls. Meanwhile lawyers for the IRC have rejected Ms Whitney’s lawsuit and denied her charges.
Ms Whitney’s encounter with the two sisters, and her dispute with the IRC, have come to light during an investigation by The Advocacy Project (AP) into the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Maryland a year after the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021.
AP supported a program to educate girls in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010 and criticized the Biden Administration’s precipitous departure from Afghanistan. We met or talked to 21 volunteers or professionals who have worked with refugees in Maryland and Virginia, and with 13 refugees or families in preparation for this article.
Many agreed that the tensions between the IRC and volunteers in Baltimore have exposed two starkly differing visions about the role of communities in resettling refugees in the US, and that this has major implications for resettlement in the future.
Volunteers praised Ms. Whitney’s passion, hard work and commitment. Jeanette Sudano, a co-founder of Heart for Refugees, a community association in Maryland that has spent thousands of dollars raised by Ms Whitney, called her a “rock star.”
But others described volunteers like Ms Whitney and Ms Sudano as “well-meaning meddlers” who have refused to acknowledge the pressures placed on agencies by the largest and most difficult resettlement effort undertaken by the US in recent years.
One official at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a program at the Department of Health and Human Services that funds long-term resettlement programs said bluntly: “These folks don’t have a role in the resettlement process.”
Others said that Ms Whitney’s lawsuit shows a misunderstanding about the money that was withheld by the IRC to cover the sisters’ rent. Funding for the first 90 days of resettlement, known as Reception and Placement, is given to the resettlement agencies by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) at the Department of State to cover the basic needs of refugees, including housing. It is not given directly to the refugees themselves, even though it is often referred to as “welcome money.”
AP made multiple efforts to reach IRC staff in Maryland but with two exceptions our emails and calls were not answered. An advance copy of this article was shared with the agency.
The Biden Administration dubbed the airlift and resettlement of Afghan refugees “Operation Allies Welcome.” Asked to assess its success over the past year almost everyone interviewed for this article began by describing the challenge as “unprecedented.”
The process was harrowing for the refugees themselves. Many arrived deeply traumatized after being plucked from a war zone and exposed to chaos and violence at Kabul airport. Most spoke no English and had no knowledge of their new country beyond what they had learned from working with Americans in Afghanistan.
Adding to the stress, many had been separated from their families. Samira and Mina I, who met with Ms Whitney at the Baltimore apartment, are from a family of eight sisters. One sister is now in Oregon, two are in Russia and the remaining three are in Kabul with their parents.
The size and speed of the evacuation was certainly unprecedented. The US airlifted over 72,000 Afghans to the US in the months following the fall of Kabul – compared to the 11,411 refugees admitted to the US in 2021 through the normal resettlement process and a similar number in 2020.
One US government official described this as a “massive, massive undertaking.” The closest recent parallel, she said, occurred during the Obama Administration when the resettlement agencies received approximately 3,500 Syrians a week for two months. For Operation Allies Welcome, in contrast, approximately 4,000 Afghans arrived each week over five months.
Myat Lin, who heads the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees (MORA), said that his state had accepted 2,032 Afghans in the Fall of 2021 and that this had placed an enormous strain on housing in particular. Rents were sky-high and the vacancy rate in Baltimore apartment buildings stood at just 2% during the pandemic, he said.
Adding to the challenge, Maryland had almost no Afghan community before August last year according to Manizha Azizi, a former refugee from Afghanistan who now works for Homes Not Borders, a nonprofit that provides refugees with home furnishings. This absence of a prior “Afghan footprint” in Maryland robbed the new arrivals of a support system that has proved critically important in helping other refugees adapt to American culture.
Operation Allies Welcome also put pressure on the nine nongovernmental agencies, including the IRC, that were contracted by the Department of State to manage the resettlement of the refugees.
The IRC has worked in many of the world’s hotspots, including Afghanistan, and has long been a mainstay of the US resettlement program. According to a guest editorial on February 22 in the Baltimore Sun by Mr Chandrasekar, the IRC director in Maryland, the agency has resettled over 15,000 refugees in the US during the past twenty years.
Experts agreed that the agencies were ill-prepared for the arrival of so many Afghans in such a short space of time. The Trump Administration had drastically reduced the number of refugees coming to the US and this, combined with the pandemic, forced agencies to lay off experienced staff and sever contacts with key community partners like rental agencies.
“I am sympathetic to the IRC,” said Susan Krehbiel, who has worked with asylum cases and refugees since the 1980s and helps Presbyterian congregations connect with refugee programs for the Presbytery of Baltimore. “You cannot just go back and hire people – they’ve moved on.”
The agencies were dealing with “numbers you haven’t seen in decades and trying to create a program in the midst of chaos,” even as the refugees were arriving in the US, said Ms Krehbiel. “It was not even clear which services (the refugees) would receive.”
Mr Chandrasekar acknowledged the challenges facing the IRC in his February 22 Op-ed and asked for “patience and understanding of the scale and complexity of this operation.”
In spite of the unprecedented nature of Operation Allies Welcome, several people interviewed for this article said the IRC had rebuffed their offer of help during the early days of the crisis.
In August 2021, IRC officials met with several NGOs in the Baltimore area that did not receive federal funding to resettle Afghan refugees but had years of experience in providing essential services to vulnerable immigrants.
The organizations included Esperanza, a Catholic agency that works with undocumented immigrants from Latin America; the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group; Luminus, a community network that worked with refugees in Howard County of Maryland; and the Baltimore Presbytery.
Susan Krehbiel, who attended on behalf of the Baltimore Presbytery, said that the organizations hoped to find volunteers who could complement the IRC’s efforts at the hotels and agreed that any volunteers would have to receive screening and training. “At the same time, we were urging the IRC to embrace more collaborative ways of engaging the community, including leveraging our relationships and outreach,” she said.
Ms Krehbiel said the discussions proved largely fruitless. “We were going back and forth about the independence of IRC and we decided at the end of the day that the refugees were more important than the public perception of the IRC,” she said. “The only concrete support we were able to offer through the IRC were 40 sets of kitchen supplies for families to cook while staying at the hotels.”
Rebuffed by the IRC, the organizations continued their own efforts, and the Presbytery used its community connections to secure medical attention for several of the families at the hotels, including pregnant women and some newborns. Many volunteers from that period have continued to support many of the Afghans in Baltimore with social events, including an Eid celebration last May, said Ms Krehbiel.
The organizations also pooled their efforts and delegated to Luminus, which expanded its work to the Baltimore area and set up a new project, the Afghan Alliance of Maryland, to work with the new arrivals under Shakera Rahimi, a widely respected former OBGYN in Afghanistan.
Several volunteers told AP that they had also offered their services to the IRC and been rejected. Bob Cooke, a retired unionist in Gaithersburg, had helped to organize an interfaith group to assist Syrian refugees in the US in 2016 and gained valuable experience and contacts with the Muslim community in Maryland.
Mr Cooke said that he approached the IRC when the Afghans began to arrive in August 2021 and met several times with IRC staff in Baltimore. In the end, his team decided to offer their services to the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), the smallest of the three resettlement agencies working with Afghans in Maryland.
“They (the ECDC) were looking for the most help,” said Mr Cooke. “They knew they couldn’t do it themselves. They were a lot more honest.” The IRC, in contrast, “argued that they had everything under control and wanted to do everything exactly their way. They didn’t want to give any latitude towards people like us.”
Ms Whitney said she also approached the IRC and was asked to sign up as an IRC volunteer, attend IRC training, sign a confidentiality agreement and agree to a background check, all of which would take several weeks. “It just didn’t make sense while Afghan women were delivering babies and could not get to the hospital,” she said.
Asked to comment, Ms Krehbiel said that the IRC had made a mistake in treating the arrival of Afghans as business as usual instead of the unprecedented crisis it clearly was, and trying to “adapt traditional methods to a non-traditional” emergency. She noted that the IRC had even failed to set up a satellite office at the extended stay hotels in Baltimore, where the Afghans first arrived. This could have avoided much of the early bad publicity and opened up a dialogue with volunteers.
“I will say this,” said Ms Krehbiel. “Government does not integrate people. Case workers do not integrate people. Programs don’t integrate people. Only communities can integrate people in their community.”
Ms Whitney herself has continued to expose what she sees as examples of “neglect and incompetence” and in the process turned into an advocate for greater transparency and accountability in the resettlement system.
But she has also played a less confrontational role as a coordinator for over 100 volunteers who have formed 27 teams to support Afghan families in the Baltimore area. Funding has come from team members, from churches and from Ms Whitney, who has raised $24,522 through gofundme and another $60,000 through corporate donations.
During a series of meetings with AP in recent weeks, Ms Whitney explained that the team model contrasts sharply with the traditional approach of resettlement agencies. Agency caseworkers are assigned multiple refugee families and are backed up by volunteers who go thorough IRC background checks and training, she said. Their focus is essentially short-term. Teams, in contrast, are groups of friends who offer a range of services and skills to individual refugee families for as long as is required.
Like other team members who spoke to AP, Ms Whitney said that her own motivation was deeply personal and tinged with a sense of guilt. “I can’t turn away,” she said. “They’re coming to our country. We invited them here. It’s not like they’re being smuggled across the border. These are people we told them we would take care of, and we’re not.”
Ms Whitney’s experience with the sisters has also convinced her that the resettlement system can demean refugees by viewing them as clients dependent on services. “It feels sort of sub-human,” she said. “These are proud people.”
Ms Whitney said that the Baltimore teams are modeled on Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA), a network established by Ryan Alvis, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and also felt the need to respond when she first met Afghan refugees at the hotels. “It was all about survival back then,” said Ms Alvis in a phone call with AP.
The ANWA network has made extensive use of social media to reach out to members and the ANWA Facebook page today has more than 1,900 friends. Ms Whitney has followed ANWA’s example and posts regularly on Facebook and Amazon lists, seeking everything from blenders to sanitary pads.
One major advantage of the team approach is a deep understanding of the communities where refugees will settle said Bob Cooke, who helped to launch the New Neighbors Interfaith Alliance (NNIA), a network of interfaith organizations in Gaithersburg to work with Afghan refugees. The alliance has supported 20 refugee families since January and raised over $70,000 from about 100 private donors. It is run by seven volunteers, including Mr Cooke, and does not have any formal legal status.
As well as roots in the community, Mr Cooke said that his group has considerable expertise because many members are retired with successful careers behind them and time on their hands. Many of their skills are also complementary, and this allows the team to provide integrated support and address multiple needs.
This was echoed by Hilary Smalley, one of three friends who coordinate a team in support of two Afghan brothers and their families in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Ms Smalley credited Ms Whitney with “lighting the spark” by alerting her to the crisis at the Baltimore hotels when they were in a running class together, and she helped form the team in March. A nurse by training, Ms Smalley covers the family’s medical needs. Another volunteer handles schools. Others help by driving and organizing events, from baby showers to picnics.
The connections enjoyed by community teams allow them to locate refuge families that are in trouble and respond quickly, said Minoo Tavakoli, who escaped from Iran with her family during the revolution in 1985 and went on to head the computer department at the Columbia School of Business before retiring.
Ms Tavakoli started a support group for the Afghan refugees in 2021 with three other Iranian-American friends and said she has probably helped “hundreds” of Afghans in the months since. She has invested almost $10,000 of her own money and said that her knowledge of Farsi made it easier to communicate with the refugees. Language is a significant barrier to their successful integration, she said.
As their friendships with the refugees have deepened, so has the teams’ understanding of the resettlement challenges, and this has allowed them to be creative in their response. In April Ms Whitney organized a sale of Afghan rugs at her house and commissioned food for the event from a family of 15 that includes Lala A, 72, an excellent cook. Lala’s dishes proved so successful that the family wants to open a food truck.
Often, team members respond with acts of simple kindness. Aware that Samira I was lonely, Ms Whitney took her on a tour of museums in Washington with another young refugee woman, Shogofa S, whose parents were killed by the Taliban in a bomb attack and was also pining for her siblings in Afghanistan.
AP came across many other such examples during this research. Amy Springer, a teacher who has taken over coordination of the Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans, makes a point of taking toys for refugee children whenever she visits a family. Heart for Refugees recently organized a picnic for scores of refugees which enabled Afghan men to reunite with friends they had known back in Afghanistan. Ms Azizi from Homes Not Borders described the event as “cool” and said it had helped to build the Afghan “footprint” in Maryland.
Not all resettlement agencies view the independence of the refugee support teams as a threat.
The smallest of the three agencies in Maryland, the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), has supported around 350 Afghans in Maryland since August 2021 and welcomes volunteers because they contribute towards the complete integration of refugees, said Katherine Stockton-Juarez, the agency’s volunteer coordinator.
ECDC was established in 1983 to raise support for refugees from Ethiopia among Ethiopians living in the US and this focus on the receiving communities “sets us apart from other agencies,” she said. It also requires a long-term, open-ended commitment.
Ms Stockton-Juarez said that ECDC works with about 135 volunteers and supports several initiatives that enable volunteers to contribute on their own terms. Ten are participating in First Friends, a program that encourages volunteers to build open-ended friendships with refugees. Another program works with “support groups” that help refugee families and often comprise churches.
Earlier this year, ECDC launched a new pilot project (“co-sponsorships”) to work with teams and asked the New Neighbors Interfaith Alliance in Gaithersburg to sponsor the first family. Bob Cooke, an Alliance coordinator, had worked with ECDC during the Syrian refugee crisis. He told AP that the new assignment was significantly different from the earlier collaboration, when his group had taken over from ECDC after the initial 90 days. When it came to the Afghans, he said, ECDC asked the Alliance to assume the entire range of services (“the whole nine yards!”) from the start.
Asked whether surrendering authority to the teams represented a risk, Ms Stockton-Juarez agreed that “rogue” volunteers can offer inappropriate support and even lead to the “scamming” of refugees. But she vets the teams carefully in advance, checks in every two weeks and is ready to intervene if she hears complaints or sees signs of “microaggression” in the way team members address the refugees. She has encountered no problems so far and the ECDC now has seven teams working as co-sponsors.
Others interviewed for this article said that community-based organizations act as a bridge between resettlement agencies on the one hand, and communities on the other. One example is Homes Without Borders, which has provided 420 refugee families with beds, mattresses and home furnishings since August last year, according to Laura Thompson Osuri, the organization’s founder.
Over 80% of the families have been Afghans and most were referred by agencies, including the IRC, she said: “We love the IRC and they love us.”
While it works with the IRC, Homes Not Borders also has deep roots in the community, explained Ms Azizi, family service manager for the organization. Ms Azizi came to the US as a refugee at the age of five and well remembers the difficulties that faced her own parents in adapting to their new culture. This has given her an acute sense of the challenge facing the new wave of Afghans and her job gives her latitude to explore innovative approaches that include cooking and embroidery.
Ms Azizi also serves on the board of two organizations, the Afghan Alliance at Luminus and the Immigrant Refugee and Outreach Center which also allows her to deepen the Afghan footprint in Maryland.
There is wide agreement that these and other organizations will be critical as the resettlement effort enters the second year. As well as contacts, they offer specialist services that address the needs of vulnerable families that might miss out on government funding after the initial 90 days of Reception and Placement. This is examined in further detail below.
The success of ECDC and Homes Without Borders in working with communities has left many frustrated at the lack of collaboration between the IRC and the volunteer teams in Baltimore. This, they said, is doing real damage.
One concern is rent, which is the single largest expense facing refugees during and after the first 90 days. Most of the 27 families supported by the teams in Baltimore were able to pay their rent during the 90 days through a combination of the federal subsidy (the so-called “welcome money”) and money raised by Ms Whitney and the teams.
But refugees expressed anxiety and uncertainty over what happened next. The lack of communications between IRC caseworkers and volunteers has done nothing to allay their concerns.
In a June 28 phone discussion with AP, Myat Lin, the Maryland refugee coordinator, said that his office does offer additional funding for rent after 90 days but that this is not “widely announced.”
Ms Whitney has since learned that Mr Lin has also pledged a year of support for families that fall behind in paying rent and that he is determined that no Afghan refugee will be evicted in Maryland. The problem, she said, is that this was not communicated to the 27 refugee families in Baltimore or to the team volunteers by Mr Lin’s office or IRC caseworkers.
Ms Whitney was also upset to hear that her own funds had gone to pay for rent when government money was available, and described this as “waste and duplication.”
The breakdown in communications has also meant that the 27 families and their teams do not know what to expect after the initial 90 days, and whether or not the IRC remains responsible for their welfare.
Funding for programs after the 90 days comes through The Office of Refugee Resettlement and is managed by the states. But according to Susan Krehbiel, from the Maryland Presbytery, these programs are not required to offer services to all refugees and are subject to less federal oversight than during Reception and Placement. “The only thing with teeth is (during) the 90 days,” she said.
This leaves it unclear what the refuges can claim, and from whom. One expert told AP that refugees tend to have “unrealistic expectations” about agency support and assume “it will last forever.” This should have been addressed at US Army bases during the first phase of Operation Allies Welcome but, she said, cultural orientation at the bases was cut short because of the numbers and urgency of moving the refugees off base and into states. Rumors then spread quickly by word of mouth as refugees arrived in the states and began comparing services.
There seems little chance of any agreement soon between the Baltimore teams and IRC. Mr Lin has urged the volunteers to help their families fill out a form designating the volunteers as representatives, and then work through agencies.
Ms Whitney said that she will agree to a background check, and had already undergone a check through Luminus. But she is unwilling to work under the IRC. Barbara Ferris, president of the International Women’s Democracy Center, another critic of the IRC’s early handling of arrivals in Baltimore, was more blunt. Working with the IRC at this stage, she said, “would damage our credibility.”
Several people interviewed for this article warned that the continuing stand-off and the media coverage it has generated could jeopardize government support for traditional resettlement.
The Biden Administration has offered to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and announced a new initiative on April 22 to encourage American families to assume the cost of resettling Ukrainians by forming “Sponsor Circles.” But the prospect of the federal government withdrawing altogether alarmed several experts who spoke to AP. One said his agency was worried by the possibility of abuse and even trafficking of Ukrainians.
Others said that neither the agencies nor the communities can manage resettlement on their own. Volunteers cannot possibly provide consistent services to large numbers of refugees across the country while also adhering to onerous federal regulations. But the agencies cannot afford to ignore volunteers like Ms Whitney who have a direct line into communities.
“Both approaches are clearly needed,” said Ms Stockton-Juarez from the ECDC.
The two competing visions of resettlement color how the last year’s efforts are perceived by those who talked to AP for this article.
Several people described the response of the agencies as nothing short of heroic. According to one federal government analysis, over half of the Afghans considered employable have found jobs and 97% of the Afghan refugees are in permanent housing.
“Given the shortage of housing and the fact that they arrived with no jobs or a credit history, that is pretty incredible,” said one expert who works on the resettlement of Afghans. “I have been amazed to see what has been done.”
The expert added that the resettlement agencies had been “extremely creative and committed to resettling Afghans under extremely difficult conditions – housing and labor shortages, the pandemic, and huge pace and numbers.”
This was echoed by Mr Lin, the refugee coordinator for Maryland, who said the government’s definition of success is whether a refugee is “able to meet his or her basic expenses with income through employment.” Prior to 2022, he said, around 70% of new refugees found work within 8 months of their arrival in Maryland – one of the best records in the country – although a “few still struggled after the 8 months.”
Overall, Ms Whitney’s fellow volunteers are proud of their work so far. Hilary Smalley, who works with the two Afghan families headed by brothers in Glen Burnie, clashed with the IRC in March after she withdrew one of the families from housing assigned by the IRC and found work for one of the brothers. The IRC refused to release several thousand dollars of cash assistance given by the Department of State to cover rent for the family’s new apartment.
But Ms Smalley is content with the outcome. “So many things have worked out well for (the families) that it’s hard for me to get mad,” she said. “They have jobs. Their kids are enrolled in decent schools. They’re happy and they have a car (paid for by the team.) I feel blessed.”
But while many volunteers share Ms Smalley’s sense of accomplishment, their view of progress so far is overshadowed by the fact that they are working mainly with families in crisis.
Although the pace has slowed, new cases continue to arrive, said Ms Whitney. In a July 28 email to the IRC she reported that a family in Baltimore that spoke very little English was “panicking” because their electricity had been shut off during a heat wave. After calling the utility company, volunteers learned that the family owed $793.5 because their IRC caseworker had forgotten to change the name on their account. Adding to their woes, the family had no baby formula. The family had tried to contact the caseworker but received no reply.
Ms Whitney is also worried for a 16-year old refugee who was not enrolled in school and was beaten by his father after an argument. Ms Whitney had helped the father and son move to an apartment in a good school district and found the father a full-time job with benefits. But the boy was not enrolled in school by the IRC and went to work in a 7-Eleven store, only to be accused of stealing $800 by the owner and reported to the police. He later signed a confession even though he could speak barely any English.
“If he had gone to school, I think the son would have had a better shot at making it,” said Ms Whitney.
Jenna Whitney’s experience with Afghan families in crisis has also influenced her expectations for the challenges that lie ahead.
Most agree that education will not be the problem it was in the early months last year. After being enrolled in school, almost all refugee children have benefited from English language training (ESL) and many have made spectacular progress. During one visit to the Renaissance Plaza building in Baltimore, AP met with Abdullah T, who lost a leg while rescuing an American soldier in Afghanistan. All of his seven children were in school and his older son – who provided translation for his father – had picked up English while waiting on the US army base.
But Abdullah T himself was struggling to navigate a thicket of regulations and secure disability benefits. His team of volunteers predicted a difficult road ahead.
Just how difficult it will be, they said, will also depend on the support he receives from other Afghans in the neighborhood. While most families at the Renaissance Plaza have made friends with other refugees in the building, the lack of an Afghan mosque and stores in the neighborhood will add to the problem – one reason why volunteer teams wanted to move families from the building early after their arrival. While an “Afghan footprint” may be emerging slowly in Maryland, it cannot be manufactured artificially or overnight.
Other refugees at the Renaissance Plaza also made it clear that employment is not always the boon it is made out to be. Akhtar W took advantage of the hot job market and quickly found entry-level work as a gas attendant. Others have worked in food processing and warehouses that require little English and earned an average of around $14 an hour, according to volunteers.
But this has placed a strain on Akhtar W, who arrived without his family and only qualified for $1,225 in federal support during the first 90 days. He sleeps in the same room as three other Afghan men who also arrived without their families so as to cover the cost of rent. Akhtar W has also been forced to take on additional part-time work in order to meet his own expenses and send money back to his family in Afghanistan. His working day sometimes lasts for 15 hours, he said.
“Single men and women may seem more resilient but they also suffer more from loneliness,” said Ms Whitney who knows Akhtar W well. The conventional approach to resettlement has no answers for loneliness and depression, she said.
Volunteers are also uncovering cases of family tensions which escalate into violence. Minoo Tavakoli, who works closely with Ms Whitney, is particularly worried by the pressures on refugee women who usually live with the families of their husbands and tend to be far more isolated in their new American culture than men.
Ms Tavakoli recently learned of a pregnant refugee in Virginia who was stabbed by her husband after a dispute and only taken to hospital after a friend alerted the police. The case fell under the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LRIS), which appears to have ignored the dispute for several weeks. An LRIS caseworker eventually called the woman’s husband, even though he was also the abuser.
In Ms Tavakoli’s view this showed that agency caseworkers are often “overwhelmed” by the number of families they have to manage and lack the skills needed to deal with such complex cases. Merely employing female caseworkers may not be enough, she said. “American women are used to yelling at men, but this does not happen in Afghanistan.”
Overshadowing everything for many refugees is continued separation from their families in Afghanistan, and uncertainty over their legal status.
Bob Cooke said that two refugee women known to his team in Gaithersburg had tried to commit suicide after being separated from their families at the airport. One of the women had just learned that her husband had been killed at the airport in an explosion. Separation also forces refugees like Akhtar W to find extra work because they are the only source of income for their families back in Afghanistan.
Legal worries only add to the strain. Most of the Afghans who arrived under Operation Allies Welcome were not granted asylum, like Ukrainian refugees, but were designated “humanitarian parolees” and given two years to secure permanent residence.
After a year many refugees feel the clock is ticking. The Biden Administration has given the Afghans temporary protection from deportation through to September 15 of next year and this could be extended. But the mere possibility of deportation adds to the anxiety and stress, said Akhtar W.
“Coming to America has made me an enemy of the Taliban” he said. “It would be a death sentence for me to go back.” He added that the Taliban were making regular visits to his house in Kabul.
Many volunteers who spoke to AP for this article felt that the sheer range of challenges that lie ahead is another strong argument for their family teams.
This is partly because they have doubts about the long-term programs funded by the federal government and channeled through states. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Maryland received $4,163,528 for Afghan refugees in an allocation announced on December 29 last year, behind only California, Texas, Virginia and Washington state. When he talked to AP on June 28, Mr Lin said his office was managing 28 cooperative agreements with 10 partners, including the three main resettlement agencies.
The problem with such programs, said volunteers, is that they do not address the full range of needs and vulnerabilities of individual families, identified above, and because they focus heavily on helping refugees find jobs.
Some ORR programs certainly do focus on special needs, like Preferred Communities, which offers help to refugees from torture and LGBTQ discrimination as well as victims of trafficking and can run for up to five years.
But many key services are barely covered. With the legal status of the Afghan parolees still in question, legal aid could be particularly important, but even the ECDC employs only one lawyer who offers pro bono advice one morning a week, said Ms Stockton-Juarez. For Ms Whitney, this makes a compelling case for volunteers like Kathy Hicks who works on Green Card applications as part of a team helping the 15-member family of Lala A near Annapolis.
Mr Cooke from the NIAA team in Gaithersburg said he is not aware of any psychologists who provide pro bono support for refugees, or specialize in the distress caused by family separation. This underscores the importance of friendship offered by team members.
As a result, some volunteers expect to add advocacy to their strategy. However exhausting it may be, and however uncomfortable for her targets, Ms Whitney sees no reason to ease her criticism of the IRC. After the controversies of the past year, she also feels there is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the resettlement process and more transparency.
On January 29 she submitted a detailed complaint about the “dire situation of Baltimore-based Afghan refugees” to the Bureau of Refugees, Population and Migration (PRM) at the State Department. A PRM official replied that the Bureau would follow up “with the organizations involved.” Early in March, Ms Whitney sent a strongly-worded complaint to the office of the Inspector General of the State Department, which referred her to the PRM Bureau.
At the state level, Ms Whitney has also sent multiple emails to the Maryland refugee coordinator Myat Lin, who himself came to the US as a refugee from Burma 16 years ago. She also contacted Congressman Jamie Raskin and the office of Governor Larry Hogan. Although Ms Whitney talked by phone with Mr Raskin, neither initiative had gone further by the time this article was written.
Others interviewed for this article said that the system badly needs independent monitoring from people like Ms Whitney. “There is simply no accountability” said Barbara Ferris from the IWDC.
AP has been told that the State Department conducts spot-checks at short notice to ensure that its procedures are being followed during the first 90 days, and hopes to complete sixty such investigations by the Fall. But the Department also relies on its agency partners to follow up on individual complaints. Ms Whitney assumes this why she heard nothing back after her January 29 complaint to the PRM Bureau.
Volunteers say that this hands-off approach by the federal government increases the importance of the Maryland Office of Refugees and Asylees (MORA) as a monitor. Myat Lin, the head of MORA, told AP that he had “responded to a number of inquiries and complaints from constituents and community members” and answered every inquiry. But, he went on, his office of four is too small to be proactive and reach out to communities.
Ms Whitney feels that Mr Lin should be more forceful, given that his office is the conduit for millions of dollars of federal funding. She would like to see him take a tougher line with the agencies, who talk to him on a weekly basis, and follow up aggressively on complaints. Others said that Mr Lin could also play a role in bridging the gulf between the IRC and its critics, and in reconciling the two visions of resettlement outlined in this article.
Some volunteers also plan to step up their advocacy for family reunification, which has stalled after early promises by the Biden Administration. They will also argue for passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act that would give asylum to Afghan parolees but was put on hold in 2021 and has yet to be taken up by the US Congress. Bob Cooke’s team in Gaithersburg has already approached the office of Chris Van Hollen, one of Maryland’s two senators.
For Afghan refugees who spoke to AP for this article, such action cannot come soon enough.
Akhtar W was one of several refugees at the Renaissance Plaza building who expressed concern that the outpouring of sympathy for Afghan refugees in the US last summer has given way to indifference. The main thing that keeps his hopes alive is the friendship and support of Ms Whitney, he said.