Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. In the six months since the US left and the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the United States has resettled more than 76,000 Afghan refugees. Many of these refugees supported the US as journalists, activists, translators, and humanitarian workers during our nation's lengthy war in the country. Nonprofits and community organizations have pitched in to support as many families as they can while they try to source housing, furnish apartments, enroll children in school, and they often have to rely more heavily on private donations than government funding and support.
While some Afghan families have refugee status, many have recently been admitted into the US under the humanitarian parole. It's a status that allows them immediate entry without visas, but it provides few benefits. For more on this, we're joined now by Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, who is President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Krish, it's great to have you here.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us again about the reason it was so important for so many Afghans to flee the country amid the US troop withdrawal.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: We're talking about combat interpreters who served alongside our troops, embassy personnel who supported our diplomats, women's rights activists, NGO workers, journalists, other vulnerable minorities. They were our close friends and allies for 20 years. They supported our mission, and many of them were endangered precisely because they championed our shared values. For these people in their families, there just wasn't ever going to be any safety or future under a Taliban regime.
We obviously saw that in the fear and the desperation, the chaos of the evacuation, families passing babies over barbed wire fences to get them to safety, people clinging to moving aircraft who ultimately fell to their deaths. For them, they were desperate to get out of the US and it's been incredible. First, it was airlifting 124,000 out of Afghanistan, and 76,000 were at-risk Afghans who moved to the safety of American soil.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me how this settlement process here in the US actually works for these families.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: We call it Operation Allies Welcome. They ultimately arrived at eight military bases here in the US where they were screened for medical issues, vaccinations. Once they then move to their final destination, resettlement organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helped them adjust to life in the US. We help them with things like housing, employment, school enrollment, English classes, cultural orientation, and then provide basic necessities like clothes and food.
Really proud to report that there are only a couple of 100 left on one of the last military bases, and so they'll leave in the next several days, but we know that successful resettlement and integration doesn't happen in a matter of days or weeks. Our new Afghan neighbors are going to need friendship and support for months and years to come.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There must be value to resettling in a community where there are other members of your home nation where you speak similar languages where you know one another, so I'm wondering if Operation Allies Welcome was settling families absolutely individually or in communities?
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: Great question. The way refugee resettlement traditionally happens is there's actually a number of factors that all go into this complex algorithm of deciding where a family or an individual will ultimately resettle. Two of the most important criteria are is there a strong concentrated community that could provide a support structure and/or are there US ties? Because states like California, Texas, Virginia have some strong Afghan communities that have grown over a number of years, those are certainly areas where you will see a significant number of new Afghan rivals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a bit about what it's like for Afghan families who are resettling in the US. What are some of the biggest challenges they face?
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: The challenges are many both for refugees themselves and for resettlement organizations caring for them. I've met with families, and in every case, they're coming with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs trying to start over from scratch in a new country after the trauma of losing the only home that they've ever known. We're talking about people who are expected to build a new life in a new country and oftentimes in a new language. We particularly care for vulnerable groups like new mothers with nursing infants, as well as unaccompanied Afghan children.
That's why the resettlement effort is so important because we can respond to the most urgent needs, but also try to get them on a path to self-reliance. As an organization, we've had to rebuild our capacity almost overnight. After the resettlement infrastructure was essentially decimated over the four years of the previous administration, we saw record-low refugee admissions, which meant that resettlement organizations had to shut down more than 100 local offices nationwide, LIRS ourselves, we had to close 17.
We've had to aggressively rebuild by hiring new staff, opening new locations. For the Afghans, another major challenge has been housing. We help these families get a roof over their heads, but we're having to do that amid a nationwide shortage of affordable housing. It's complicated in places like California or Northern Virginia, especially where reasonably priced accommodation has been extremely scarce.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering about where the other resources come from to raise these structures to stand them up swiftly enough.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: There has been an amazing outpouring of community support from churches, veterans, volunteers. Just yesterday, we received a cheque from a church that was going to use a $50,000 contribution for a capital campaign to expand the church and they said, "As a result of the pandemic, that's not where we need to put these resources right now, we need to help launch an emergency fund for Afghan families."
Then we've also had private partners, Airbnb. Uber is another example. As we're trying to get families to doctor's appointments, to meet with their lawyers, to meet with their caseworkers, Uber, for example, has donated thousands of rides to help them. People have stepped up and said, "I have a couple of bedrooms in my home. Can I help? I have a apartment that's furnished that's not being used, could you use it?" It's been really cobbling together a coalition of support.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do these families have pathways to citizenship or to legal permanent status?
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: Because of the hurry last-minute evacuation, the majority of evacuees enter the US on a tenuous legal status called humanitarian parole. What a lot of people don't realize is that status doesn't guarantee they'll be able to stay in the US permanently. It provides temporary relief, essentially allows them to stay for up to two years, and to apply for work permit. To access permanent legal status to remain in the US, they have to apply for asylum. That's a challenging situation because asylum is a high threshold to meet, it requires a significant amount of documentation to establish a credible claim, and for this specific population, that's a potential catch 22.
Many of the allies were encouraged to destroy evidence of their affiliation with the US to avoid Taliban detection and retribution, but that same documentation might be a death sentence in Afghanistan, it could actually be the key to winning an asylum case here in the US, not to mention the asylum system is severely backlogged with about 600,000 pending cases. That's why we're calling on Congress and the administration to pass what we're calling the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow Afghans to apply for a more permanent status.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just one last question. What can people who are listening do to assist in their own communities?
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: That's an excellent question because this really is an all-hands-on-deck effort. It's important to realize that resettlement isn't just a sprint, it's a marathon, so we need employers who are open to hiring refugees so that they can take those first steps towards self-sufficiency. We opened a Northern Virginia office, 20 staff. All 20 are Afghan. I can tell you as an employer, these people they're talented, they're driven, they're skilled, they're resilient, they're reliable workers. We need volunteers to help with apartment setups. We need people to serve as English tutors so families can navigate life in a new language.
We need folks to drive families to doctor's appointments, cultural orientation, other appointments, and then we need advocates to encourage our elected officials to continue to support our Afghan allies. There's a number of ways to contribute, and I'd welcome any listeners who are interested in learning more to visit our website at lirs.org to learn more about getting directly involved in this transformative work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Krish, thanks again for joining us.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah: Really appreciate the opportunity.
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