A small number of Afghan refugees fleeing the country after the United States ended its military presence there have already been relocated to Pennsylvania.
Organizations preparing to house refugees have been warned that more families will need help by mid-September as the federal government processes some of the thousands of Afghans who are already in the country and held at military bases.
Pennsylvania’s largest cities – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – have been identified by the State Department as suitable communities for Afghan refugees, but welfare agencies across the state have agreed to house Commonwealth refugees.
Groups in Philadelphia have housed six Afghan families and groups in Pittsburgh have already housed three families, officials from organizations coordinating relocation efforts said.
Many more refugees are likely on the way.
“We have welcomed three families so far and are ready for more families to arrive,” said Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of refugee and immigration services for the Jewish Family and Community Service in Pittsburgh.
Smith-Tapia said JFCS is working with Accuculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach, a refugee relocation organization in Pittsburgh, along with 10 other organizations in the community to help Afghan refugees arrive.
“Our most urgent need is to find a suitable apartment. If you are a landlord and have a house available, please contact us and let us know, ”she said.
Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, one of the agencies leading the resettlement effort in Philadelphia, said the process of housing Afghan refugees once they arrive will be an extended period of time.
“I urge people to keep paying attention and supporting this because it is going to be a long way. That won’t stop next week. This is really going to start for Philadelphia. In about two weeks, and then it will go on for a long, long time, and so we ask people, you know, to stay supported. It’s really, really meaningful, ”she said.
More than 8,000 Afghan refugees are being held at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and officials say the base is preparing to host up to 13,000 refugees. About 5,000 refugees are expected to be held at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, federal officials said. A total of around 20,000 refugees are being held at military bases awaiting processing, and thousands more abroad.
Governor Tom Wolf has promised Pennsylvania will take in Afghan refugees. The governor announced on Wednesday that the Pennsylvania Air National Guard has been mobilized to assist in the safety and transportation of refugees while they are being transported across the country.
“Pennsylvania was founded on the ideals of peace, tolerance, and security for all people,” said Wolf. “It is our duty to recreate the ideals on which Pennsylvania was founded and to be a welcome home for all who seek safe refuge in the United States. Therefore, Pennsylvania stands ready to continue to serve as a resource and safe, welcoming home for those seeking refuge in the United States. “
The State Department of Human Services activated the Pennsylvania state emergency repatriation plan as part of Operation Allies Refuge and set up an emergency repatriation center at the designated port of entry, Philadelphia International Airport, said Erin James, a DHS spokeswoman.
“Department staff are at the airport to assist US citizens arriving from Afghanistan, as well as federal and local partner agencies. The DHS is also coordinating an operation to provide meals, including halal meals, to all arriving in need, ”she said.
The state will not be directly involved in the referral of refugees and will instead rely on humanitarian groups to find a home for the refugees.
“In its role, DHS helps provide access to quality work, medical and mental health assessments, support services and case management for up to 60 months after arrival. The DHS has no authority over who or how many refugees will be resettled in PA. That decision is made by the federal government, ”said James.
Refugees arriving in the United States landed at Philadelphia International Airport and Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC.
Local officials said they were not told how many refugees to expect but that they were notified that the first groups of refugees to be relocated to the community are expected to arrive in mid-September, Miller-Wilson said.
“That’s the million dollar question,” she said when asked if her agency had been told how many refugees could be expected. “The answer is no.”
When possible, refugees are placed in communities where they already have family connections, Miller-Wilson said.
“There’s an Afghan community in Philly that is about 700 people, OK, and there are a lot of people on the military bases connected to these people. So if they’re connected, they’ll likely end up in Philly. But the largest community of Afghans is in California and Texas. So there are a lot more connections with these people, ”she said.
Officials in Pittsburgh estimate the Afghan community there comprises about 200 people, according to JFCS.
However, refugees with no family ties can be relocated almost anywhere.
“There are actually 19 resettlement agencies in Pennsylvania, and all of them stepped up and said, ‘We’re ready to take people in.’ So I think there will be growing Afghan churches in Pennsylvania and other places beyond Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But they will likely be lower down the priority list as part of refugee relocation involves moving people into a community. Nobody wants to be the first and only Afghan family in one place, ”said Miller-Wilson.
She said it is difficult to prepare for placement of refugees without more information on how many are coming. These efforts have been made difficult by the tremendous demand for available housing, which drives up rental costs when an apartment is available.
“The rental costs have skyrocketed,” she says.
The federal government supports refugees with a three-month scholarship until they can settle down and secure their livelihood.
Typically the rental cost was 10-15% of this scholarship, but among the families the agency has already placed they found that the rental cost was 20-30% of the scholarship.
In addition, the demand for rental units is so great that there are waiting lists for apartments, she said.
Jewish family and community services have launched a fundraiser to help refugees, an initiative that has already received $ 70,680 in donations.
And to welcome every Afghan family, JFCS collects welcome letters, which are summarized in a book and distributed to every Afghan family.
“At this point in time, we received an overwhelming response from the community that is committed to accepting evacuees from Afghanistan. This is a community initiative and it really shows how welcoming Pittsburgh is to everyone, ”said Rebecca Remson, director of development and communications at JFCS.