Afghan allies who evacuated after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have already started arriving to metro Atlanta to rebuild their lives, aided by resettlement agencies, nonprofits, the local Afghan community, and compassionate Atlantans.
As of Nov. 12, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta had welcomed 350 Afghans, including pregnant women, babies, and young children.
“This is a bold, ambitious answer to a humanitarian and moral calling,” said the IRC in Atlanta’s Executive Director Justin Howell. “These are families who had a real fear of persecution or being killed for support they provided to the U.S.”
The IRC in Atlanta has committed to resettle 800 of the 1,500 Afghan humanitarian parolees coming to Georgia in addition to 900 refugees from other countries like Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and El Salvador. The nonprofit provides resettlement and case management services, adult education classes, youth programs, employment assistance, asset building resources, community health response programs, and immigration services.
Howell recently completed two deployments at a U.S. military site “safe haven” where he worked with federal agencies to welcome and process Afghan allies – and has since focused on preparing Atlanta to receive them.
“Just leaving your homeland is traumatic but leaving under the chaos of the evacuation, leaving family behind and being in limbo at the ‘safe haven’ further exacerbates that trauma. They want to get on with their lives, start working, provide for their families and achieve beyond bare necessities,” Howell said.
Bahar Mehr, an Afghan refugee who arrived last year, understands the road ahead.
“It’s tough being here in the U.S., facing a lot of things that are new,” Mehr said. “All of these people coming need support not just financially but also emotionally.”
The obstacles Afghans face are many as they connect to employment, housing, education, health care and other activities of daily life.
“The real challenge right now is affordable housing, which we know is a huge crisis locally, regionally and nationally,” Howell said. “Normally, we would have six to eight weeks advance notice for a family arriving – now we have 48 hours. We are forced into using short-term housing before we can move people into long-term housing.”
Families from rural Afghan provinces may require more guidance and services.
“A lot of the young women are illiterate because the Taliban made it unsafe to attend school,” said Dr. Hogai Nassery, Afghan American Alliance of Georgia co-founder and a practicing physician who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan with her family when she was five years old. “Families are large because of lack of access to family planning and high infant mortality rate. One family didn’t know the difference between a refrigerator and a freezer. Most are familiar with cell phones, thankfully.”
Resettlement agencies are trying to staff up quickly, but are doing so from depleted ranks. After the Trump administration repeatedly set the lowest refugee arrival levels in the program’s 40-year history, one-third of resettlement agencies shut down and those that stayed open reduced staff.
“We’ve resettled more people in the last month than we have in the last two years combined,” Howell said. “We are looking to hire everyone from caseworkers, casework supervisors, employment staff and more. The good thing is Georgia has always been one of the top 10 states for welcoming refugees. While we may not have had the volume in the past four years, the institutional muscle memory is there.”
That muscle memory includes thoughtful collaboration among resettlement agencies, nonprofits, businesses and community groups to serve each new Afghan neighbor holistically.
In that spirit, the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia recently formed to fill in gaps in partnership with resettlement agencies, match every newly arrived family with family here and create a sense of community for the newly arrived to thrive.
On Nov. 6, the alliance partnered with IRC in Atlanta, Ethaar and others to host a new Afghan arrival event at the East Cobb Islamic Center.
“We served 70 people with clothing, shoes, diapers, hygiene kits, school supplies,” Dr. Nassery said. “The mosque fed them a meal. ICNA [Islamic Circle of North America] had a mobile clinic there to do health checks. IRC set up a table so families could speak to them about employment or any caseworker needs – that was probably the most popular spot in the event. As soon as these families get placed in permanent housing others will take their place. This is a strategy we’ll need to use for a while.”
Businesses like Kabul Market in Decatur – run by Afghan refugee Baseer Basil, who arrived in 2014 – have also answered the call. After working with the IRC in Atlanta’s Microenterprise Development program, Basil secured larger space to bake Afghan bread and butcher fresh cuts of halal goat, beef, lamb, and chicken.
“In one month, IRC ordered more than 200 hot welcome meals – rice with raisins, lamb or chicken, salad, bread, spinach – for new Afghan families,” Basil said. “The first time they go to their apartment, the welcome meal makes it home.”
There are many ways to engage.
The IRC in Atlanta needs help identifying temporary housing – hotels, spare apartments or separate space within a home – while they secure permanent housing. The nonprofit has also launched a $1.7 million fundraising campaign as “government funds barely cover half of the real costs of resettlement.”
“Donations help cover unmet housing costs, medical costs, school supplies, hygiene kits; invest in staff capacity to help new families secure employment, enroll kids in school and start their new lives,” Howell said.
“It’s amazing how generous this community has been,” Dr. Nassery said. “I hope it continues. Sometimes, honestly, it brings me to tears when I see how much people want to help.”