Afghans from the northern provinces sought refuge in Kabul after the Taliban took over.
Afghans from the northern provinces sought refuge in Kabul after the Taliban took over. Cash-strapped refugee groups in Washington are now working to find shelter for nearly 150 people. Paula Bronstein / GETTY IMAGES

In a depressing reprise of U.S. foreign policy disasters, the past week has offered up the tragic spectacle of people in Afghanistan desperate to escape the Taliban’s return to power.

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Refugees packed into transports out of Kabul, chased and clung to U.S. Air Force planes taxiing on the runway, and were shot at while trying to flee.

At a press conference on Tuesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reaffirmed the administration's commitment to evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies, and said they were “in contact with the Taliban” to ensure safe passage of those wishing to leave. But judging by Wednesday's comments from president Biden, the administration seems primarily focused on getting Americans out rather than the Afghans who dutifully assisted the U.S. in nearly 20 years of war.

While the right-wing media predictably stirred up fear about people arriving from an Islamic country, local Congressional Rep. Pramila Jayapal urged the Biden administration to speed up processing of refugees, saying in a statement, “In addition to the State Department’s work to expedite Special Immigrant Visas, we must also expand these visas and grant Temporary Protected Status to Afghans residing in the United States.”

In an email, a spokesperson for Rep. Adam Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said “the Chairman has urged the administration to do everything in their power to safely evacuate U.S. personnel, Afghan nationals that have supported the U.S. military and their families, and other Afghan nationals that may be in danger due to their work on humanitarian or human rights issues.” According to the spokesperson, Smith has also been in contact with local nonprofits working to resettle Afghan refugees, some arriving with only a day’s advance notice.

Here in Washington state, preparations to assist arrivals from Afghanistan are already underway, which makes sense given the state's history. In 1975 Republican Gov. Dan Evans welcomed refugees who fled Vietnam.

According to Washington State’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance (ORIA), the state admitted 4,166 Afghan refugees on Special Immigrant Visas between 2010 and 2020, and since October of last year admitted another 348. In the weeks since July 29, 143 Afghans have already landed in Washington. Many of these new arrivals come with literally nothing but the clothes on their back—and in response, local nonprofits are scrambling to find them housing and assistance.

“Just yesterday, we had 17 people show up,” said Chitra Hanstad, executive director of World Relief Seattle, an agency that works with the U.S. State Department to assist new arrivals. “Just for context, that’s how many refugees we would have welcomed in a month under the last administration.”

In a refugees’ first days in the U.S., housing is the most critical need, Hanstad said. Unfortunately, though funds are available, hotels and Airbnbs in Seattle area are in short supply this summer. “We’re putting a call out for anyone who has an Airbnb or a mother-in-law unit that would be willing to host our folks at market rate, below rate, or to donate,” Hanstad said. (In-home stays are a longer, more complicated process that involves background checks). You can visit World Relief’s website or email them for more info.

Meanwhile, Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA) in South Seattle is gearing up for longer-term services that will be required after refugees are here more than three months—including mental health counseling, social services, and assistance finding employment and permanent housing. “I feel for the Afghan people,” said Mahnaz Eshetu, ReWA’s executive director, who fled the Iranian Revolution as a child. “It is not easy to leave your country, especially for women. For the past 20 years, women were in the universities and now suddenly everything is closed to them.”

Eshetu said that ReWA employs several speakers of Farsi and Pashto, and that it also helps that there’s a small but tight-knit Afghan community in South King County, especially in Renton, Kent, and Auburn.

“We have a fairly big Afghan community compared to other places in the country,” Hanstad said. She added that Sacramento, California has one of the nation’s largest Afghan refugee communities, and that in the network of refugee resettlement agencies Seattle and King County are also high on the list. According to ORIA, in the past two to three years, the state of Washington has admitted 8% of the total number of people receiving Special Immigrant Visas.

Greg Hope, director of the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office, said that his organization has seen a huge surge in Afghan arrivals in the past weeks, and presumably more are on the way. Nearly 80 individuals have sought assistance through the program in the past few weeks, and since the organization has a ceiling of 235 people it can assist each year, it will likely hit those targets sooner rather than later.

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“We’re looking for groups of individuals who will be community sponsors of Afghan families to give them assistance both financially and with volunteer time,” Hope said. Groups interested should contact the Diocese office in Auburn at (206) 323-3152.

All the organizations emphasized that donations are critical now. Because of the paucity of refugee approvals during the Trump administration, World Relief Seattle had to lay off employees and curtail operations dramatically, Hanstad said. “Our heart is to welcome refugees,” she said, “and we haven’t had that chance much in the past four years. And one of the challenges now is to build back our staff.”

Hanstad also noted that rather than donations of items, organizations ask you to make financial donations or gift cards to places such as Target, Fred Meyer, or Amazon. Find more info on making a contribution at World Relief Seattle, ReWA, and The Diocese of Olympia Refugee Resettlement Office.

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