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Michigan agencies prepare for potential influx of Afghan refugees

Naval Air Station Sigonella Command Master Chief Anna Wood assists an evacuee disembarking a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender, Aug. 22, 2021.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kegan Kay
Department of Defense

The Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan has pushed many of the nation’s residents to seek asylum abroad. Some refugees will make their way to Michigan. 

“We are devastated by what is happening in Afghanistan, and it has been very re-traumatizing for our clients, both those from Afghanistan and those from other countries,” said Kristine Van Noord, Bethany Christian Services' program director for refugee resettlement in West Michigan. "Seeing all of those images is just bringing it all back for them."

Bethany Christian Services is currently working to provide individual and group therapy services to current clients whose trauma may be triggered by recent news. They’re also preparing to accept new refugees who will need employment assistance, general case management, medical case management, and community support. Other refugee assistance organizations in the state are forecasting an increase in the number of refugees they'll be serving this year, but Van Noord said it is still unclear what the numbers will be.

“It’s still a fluid situation, and so we are unsure how many refugees that we will receive,” Van Noord said.

Some Afghans entering the U.S. will come on special visas granted for their work with the U.S. military, but many others will come as asylum seekers. Deb Drennan is the executive director of Freedom House in Detroit. The organization works with asylum-seekers who have fled their country for fear of persecution. 

A grueling process

The process for establishing that case, Drennan said, is not an easy one. Some clients are torture survivors or have recieved threats of sexual assault and kidnapping of family members. These experiences must be documented in detail.

“Just think of the worst thing that could happen to you. And then you have to write it out, remembering dates, and names, and how many people were in the group, and what were they wearing, and what did they say,” Drennan said. 

The full legal process for an asylum seeker can take at least two years, Drennan said. The application for asylum can take about eight months. One year after that, asylum seekers are eligible to apply for work. They hope to have an interview for asylum within those two years, but some cases may take longer.

Van Noord noted that many Afghan refugees already here in Michigan are worried about what the Taliban takeover could mean for their family back home. 

“The refugees that we have resettled here in the West Michigan area, 102 from Afghanistan, have gone through horrific amounts of torture at the hand of the Taliban. And they now live in fear that that is going to be their family’s reality,” Van Noord said.

How others can help

Organizations like Freedom House and Bethany Christian Services offer necessary services to refugees who are able to enter the country. Despite the influx, Drennen said that her organization is prepared to support new clients. 

“This isn’t something we won’t know how to handle. We have translators, we have the support systems in place.”

Freedom House provides legal services to help guide individuals through the asylum process, translation services, socialization programs, language education programs, and employment assistance.

In addition to the 90 days of federally-funded resettlement services, Bethany Christian Services coordinates a co-sponsorship program that pairs a refugee family with a church or community group that will help them get connected with the community, identify local resources, and get children registered for school. Co-sponsorships are typically a six-month program, Van Noord said, but for incoming Afghan refugees, they are requiring a one-year commitment. 

Van Noord noted that individuals can help support refugees by communication with their church or community group about taking up a co-sponsorship, donating items that might belong in a new apartment, or offer housing options. Further details can be found on the organization’s website.

“I think that this situation in Afghanistan,  we’re looking at decades-long impact. . . We’ve seen that in other people groups as well, so we will be resettling Afghan refugees for decades to come,” Van Noord said.

This post was written by Stateside prodcution assistant Ronia Cabansag.

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