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Jewish aid group: Afghan refugees face obstacles in US, community help is key

Challenge will continue for new arrivals in US, including finding housing and employment and getting work certification; but Jewish congregations’ support can be crucial, HIAS says

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Refugees board buses that will take them to a processing center after they arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan August 27, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Refugees board buses that will take them to a processing center after they arrive at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan August 27, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

NEW YORK — Afghans who flee the Taliban for safety in the US will face a series of obstacles after arriving, according to HIAS, the Jewish-American refugee aid agency.

The hurdles for new refugees include finding housing and employment, navigating government bureaucracy and adjusting to language and cultural barriers, according to Yalda Afif, an Afghan program manager with HIAS New York.

The area’s Jewish community often plays a major part in helping new arrivals cope and become self-sufficient in the US, Afif told The Times of Israel on Friday.

HIAS staffers at US military bases in Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin are helping refugees get through paperwork, medical screenings, interviews and other roadblocks they did not complete amid the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with other resettlement agencies. HIAS has received some refugees in Philadelphia and New Jersey, but most are still in transit.

The aid group is awaiting more cases from the federal Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, but does not yet know how many refugees it will receive or when, due to the messy ongoing exit.

Many will end up in New York, said Afif, who fled Afghanistan 10 years ago and joined HIAS in 2016, the same year the organization’s New York office began aiding Afghan refugees. The office has a good relationship with the city’s 80,000-strong Afghan community, many of whom have been frantically trying to get family out of their home country, and has previous experience processing the Special Immigrant Visas that are being used in the current crisis.

Even if they reach the safety of US shores, “there are a lot of problems for the new refugee families. They will be starting their lives from scratch, from zero,” Afif said.

In New York, for new arrivals who do not have family that can provide shelter, housing is the first hurdle. They do not have a credit score or income in the US, which makes it difficult to find an apartment in the densely packed and expensive city.

Securing income is another barrier. The federal Reception and Placement program provides each family $1,125 for three months.

“Some of these people have credentials, they have their high school diplomas and college degrees, but some of these are not transferrable here in the US,” Afif said. It can take five years or more to go through the licensing certification process and re-enter the professional field.

The language barrier, and cultural obstacles for conservative families, complicate the recertification and integration process.

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

HIAS New York has partnered with a number of Jewish organizations in the city and in Westchester County to support their work.

“When the Trump administration put the travel ban on most of the Muslim countries, and then there was a cut in the funding for settlement agencies, and also a cut in the refugee admission number, all these Jewish congregations stepped forward,” Afif said.

HIAS provides core services to refugees, including making flight arrangements, meeting them at the airport, providing them with necessities at home, helping them secure the public benefits they are eligible for and finding work.

For families that do not have ties to the US or local sponsors, volunteers from Jewish congregations fill those roles for 12 months with financial support and other services including transportation to appointments, aiding children at school, English language help, driving instruction and job placement.

Families that partnered with Jewish congregations “became self-sufficient within the first year of their arrival,” Afif said. “I would say their role is very crucial in terms of supporting the resettlement agencies, but also the new families, the new arrivals in New York and other states.”

Other groups including churches and home rental company Airbnb are also resettlement partners.

Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, said there had been a “steady drumbeat” of offers to help during the current crisis that was “indicative of the Jewish community.”

“This particular refugee crisis has struck a chord,” she said. Nationally, the organization has seen hundreds of volunteer inquiries.

Jewish groups are set to receive, or have already received, refugees in California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

Thursday’s catastrophic suicide bombing in Kabul did not have a significant effect on the group’s work, since it focuses on resettling refugees after they arrive in the US.

HIAS, founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was at first a resource and aid to waves of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Later it worked to resettle Holocaust survivors and Soviet Jewish refugees.

In the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, HIAS shortened its name to the acronym and pivoted to resettling non-Jewish refugees and mobilizing the American Jewish community around advocating for immigrants and refugees.

The organization faced challenges during the Trump administration, but also saw a flood of support spurred by that White House’s policies.

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