Chicago area welcoming another wave of Afghan refugees: ‘Overnight their lives were just uprooted’
Chicago Tribune February 23, 2022
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — The young Afghan men prayed together at a Willowbrook, Ill., mosque just two days after arriving in Illinois from a military base in New Jersey. Afterward, they shared a meal of chicken, rice and samosas.
In the midst of listening to words of welcome over lunch, one of the men raised his hand.
“I don’t have a question, but I thank you for everything,” he said, through a translator.
After a pause, he added: “I love your food.”
The men are among scores of Afghan refugees arriving in Illinois this month, as the U.S. government works to move people from military bases into communities. Since September, about 2,142 Afghans have resettled in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. In all, Illinois plans to welcome about 2,500 to 3,000 refugees.
Chicagoland resettlement agencies and related nonprofit groups have worked on overdrive with strained resources since the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, leaving the country in control of the Taliban and tens of thousands of people evacuated to the U.S. due to the humanitarian crisis there. Many Afghan workers who aided the U.S. military during the war have sought asylum in other countries, fearing for their safety under a Taliban regime.
Though the agencies have welcomed a steady flow of refugees since August, they are geared up to accept an influx of new people this month, as federal officials designated Feb. 15 as a goal for emptying the military bases that had served as temporary housing, according to those working in the resettlement process and reporting from national outlets.
Resettlement agencies, still in the process of rebuilding after being whittled down during the Trump era, are working with nonprofit groups, mosques, churches, private donors and volunteers to bridge the gaps in funding and resources.
“Even though the government will support people for a short period of time, the funding offered is bare minimum,” said Irshad Khan, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “We are asking our communities to step up.”
Because the resettlement agencies are operating at capacity, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago is among the organizations aiding in the efforts.
“These are families who were assisting the U.S. military in Afghanistan. They had good jobs,” said Ayesha Ahmed, board director of development at Urban Muslim Minority Alliance, who has also been working closely with refugees. “Overnight, their lives were just uprooted.”
A high level of need
Those who work with refugees said their communities are offering money, time and translation services and donating basic necessities. But the need is overwhelming, they say.
Generally, the government supports refugees for a short time period, after which, they rely on private funding through nonprofits and resettlement agencies until they are self-sufficient.
Since September, the Illinois Department of Human Services has provided more than $12.5 million in state and federal funding, along with some ongoing rolling funding, to the refugee process, including funds for emergency housing assistance, mental health, legal assistance and other aspects of the resettlement process.
Jims Porter, manager of communications and advocacy at RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency in Chicago, said the agency settled more refugees in a three-month period than during the three previous fiscal years combined.
Porter said resettlement agencies lost infrastructure during the years former President Donald Trump was in office. The agencies are in the process of rebuilding.
“It’s definitely put a stress or strain on the system,” he said, adding that they rely heavily on community support.
Nan Warshaw, founder of a group that seeks to help resettlement agencies meet the basic needs of refugees, uses Facebook to crowdsource in obtaining much-needed items. Her group, Refugee Community Connection, provides winter apparel, pots and pans, toiletries and culturally relevant items like Afghan rugs. The organization also stocks up these items in free stores in Rogers Park and Albany Park.
“The resettlement agencies have been operating in crisis mode since the fall and they are doing a little bit better, but all are still dramatically understaffed and overworked,” Warshaw said. “We’re trying to fill in the gaps.”
Housing is one of the most difficult hurdles in the resettlement process, experts say. There is already a lack of affordable housing in Chicago, and refugees generally come with no credit or rental history. RefugeeOne guarantees rent for the first three months, Porter said.
“There is a need right now for landlords, rental management agencies to open their doors to refugees to start a new life here,” he said.
‘It takes a long time to start over’
During a Friday prayer service days before Valentine’s Day, Imam Hassan Aly of the Mecca Center in Willowbrook spoke about love among community members. He bid his community to embrace the newly arrived refugees praying beside them.
“Today, we have a beautiful group of our Afghan brothers who are visiting us, who just came to Illinois two days ago,” Aly said during the service. “We are so honored and so humbled to welcome them.”
Despite working with strained resources, those coordinating resettlement efforts say their communities have stepped up.
Volunteers with Exodus World Service, which works with resettlement agencies, have helped welcome more newly arrived refugees in recent months than all of last year, said Susan Odom, the executive director.
“It takes a long time to start over and rebuild your life,” Odom said. “We do need volunteers and more people to be involved.”
A group of north suburban Illinoisans are supporting about eight Afghan families who are living in a hotel, said Ahmed, of the Urban Muslim Minority Alliance. They cater Friday dinners for them, provide basic necessities as well as company and comfort.
One Friday at the hotel, Ahmed watched a mother video-chat with her daughter, who was still in Afghanistan. The teenager was separated from her family amid the chaos that upended Kabul as the U.S. withdrew, Ahmed said, and did not make it out of the country.
The volunteers are working with the family to bring their daughter here, including eliciting the help of local officials. A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, confirmed the office is working with the family to do what it can.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Ahmed said.
The family’s story is just one of many who risked their lives to come, and were forced to leave loved ones back home.
“None of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghani, but their country has been in some kind of war for the last 40 years,” Ahmed said. “All of a sudden they were just kind of displaced overnight.
“I really feel like it is our duty as Americans to help them rebuild their lives.”
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