A U.S. Air Force Airman guides evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
( Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force
Arun Venugopal: Amid the chaotic evacuation of US troops and allies from Afghanistan, the state department has prepared to bring around 50,000 Afghan refugees into the US for resettlement. Some conservatives have criticized the plans despite the intense security checks that are required for refugees prior to relocating within the US, but in the face of those partisan complaints, refugee agencies in states across the country have already started the complicated resettlement process for recent Afghan arrivals. Joining me now to discuss this process is Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas. Thanks for being here, Russell.
Russell Smith: Thank you very much.
Arun Venugopal: When were agencies like yours first made aware that you'd need to prepare to resettle this group of refugees from Afghanistan?
Russell Smith: There's actually the Special Immigrant Visa program has actually been around for about a dozen years. We have been welcoming Iraqis and Afghans who've helped the US overseas for that time. However, the current situation has accelerated all of that. Instead of the normal 10,000 or so that the whole country sees in a year, we're seeing about 25,000 of them over a very short period of time. It's been probably like three or four weeks that we started hearing about it and started seeing them arrive.
Arun Venugopal: What does that mean for your organization and specifically when it comes to logistics?
Russell Smith: Typically when we get a refugee family or an SIV family, we'll have a couple of weeks' notice, we'll put together a welcome team, they'll set up an apartment, they'll pick them up from the airport, and get them all set up. Typically that it's a one to two-week lead time, we're getting sometimes four hours lead time, sometimes eight hours lead time. It's all hands on deck. Our staff are picking them up. We are putting some families up in hotels until we can get apartments set up. It's just a little bit a time crunch, but this is what we've done for 40 years as Refugee Services of Texas. We've got the skillset to do it.
Arun Venugopal: Let's address this concern that some conservatives argue that Afghan refugees present a potential security risk if they're allowed to enter the US. Is there?
Russell Smith: I would say absolutely not. Refugees in general are the most vetted population ever. They go through a tremendous amount of security checks. They go through multiple agencies, health checks, and specifically, the people we're talking about are the ones that have helped us as translators, as guides, as people that have worked with the US military overseas. We've made a promise to them to help them and to ensure that they are able to come here and not be put in harm's way.
I'd say absolutely not, especially this group. Refugees in general are very well vetted. The SIVs, these are people just escaping with their lives that we made a promise to because they stepped up and helped us. I believe it's not only are they not a security risk, but we have the moral obligation to help them find a new home
Arun Venugopal: Russell, your organization was founded in the 1970s when we saw hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Vietnam. What, if anything, have we learned since then?
Russell Smith: The refugee program itself is a tremendous way for this country to do multiple things. It helps alleve global hotspots. You pointed out Vietnam. We had a huge influx of Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians when Yugoslavia broke up. Actually, that the modern refugee movement started after World War II with the Jews fleeing from Europe.
It really reflects the world as it is. What it does is help alleviate crisis situations, it spreads our diplomacy. It actually brings people in that give a rich texture to our communities, it helps our economy. Study after study shows that refugee resettlement is a net benefit in multiple ways to the US and to local economies and to local communities.
Arun Venugopal: What's the most important thing in terms of acclimating a family of refugees to a local community to make sure that they are integrated and that they're welcome?
Russell Smith: We do a lot of work with the community to ensure that they understand what resettlement entails. We work with the local school systems, the local social services and make sure that people understand the people that are coming and that there are sufficient resources, for language, for jobs, for housing. Just ensuring that the community is on board and that's a continuous process and that there are sufficient resources to welcome new people into the queue.
Arun Venugopal: On that local level, what are the ways that people can be helpful when refugees do show up in their communities?
Russell Smith: That's a great question, I think. If they're in Texas, they can go to our website at rstx.org. We have volunteer opportunities, we have ways of getting involved in multiple ways. RST is in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo, and down in the Rio Grande Valley. Every community pretty much has at least one refugee resettlement agency. There are multiple agencies across the country that do this work.
I would say just contact them, find ways to get involved. One of the best volunteer experiences that-- Like when I started, I did some of the volunteer work here. I went and greeted a family at the airport as they were arriving. That is a tremendously moving experience is seeing that these people who have been in a refugee camp, they fled violence and oppression, and they're just arriving at this completely new place that is Texas, just about to start a new life. I recommend that but there are other opportunities as well.
Arun Venugopal: You mentioned earlier on that many of these people have served as translators or have worked in other capacities with the US government or military. Do those skillsets in some ways help them prepare for life in the US?
Russell Smith: Absolutely. The SIVs that we resettled typically speak English. They typically have maybe a different skillset than the others that are coming as refugees from other countries. I'll tell you that, like in our agency, we have over 200 employees, and about half are former refugees or SIVs. I was looking through our staff list the other day and there are a significant number of our supervisors and people in higher-level positions that are Special Immigrant Visas holders from Iraq and Afghanistan. They come with leadership skills, they come with English skills, like other refugees, they come with a drive to make a new life.
Arun Venugopal: Russell Smith is the CEO of Refugee Services of Texas. Russell, thanks so much.
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