PROVIDENCE — Refugee groups are preparing to help up to 250 Afghan evacuees now that Governor Daniel J. McKee has told the president they are welcome in Rhode Island.
“Even though we are a small state, we can make a big difference,” said Omar Bah, executive director of the Refugee Dream Center.
On Tuesday, the Democratic governor wrote to President Biden, saying, “Rhode Island stands ready to welcome Afghan allies and families eager to seek solace and safety in our state — a state that was settled by refugees.”
On Friday, officials said groups such as Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, Catholic Social Services, and the Refugee Dream Center are gearing up to provide the help that the Afghans will need once they land in Rhode Island.
Kathleen Cloutier – executive director of Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s main refugee resettlement agency – said her organization and Catholic Social Services have told the federal government they are interested in resettling a maximum of 200 to 250 Afghans in Rhode Island through their national counterparts.
Cloutier said it would be a week or so before those groups find out how many might be heading to Rhode Island, and it would take another few weeks for them to be vetted and processed at military bases around the globe.
“That is what is happening now,” she said. “We might see them by mid- to late-September.”
Alisha Pina, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, said it has not been decided yet if any evacuees will be coming to Rhode Island, although it is likely. “That decision will be made next week by the national organizations in conjunction with the State Department,” she said.
Pina said the people being evacuated from Afghanistan are not being given “refugee” status but rather one of three other designations: special immigrant visa, special immigrant parole, or humanitarian parole.
Evacuees in the first two categories will be immediately eligible for federal benefits, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, she said.
But those in the “humanitarian parole” category will not be eligible until they apply for and receive asylum, “which takes some time,” Pina said. They will not receive federal benefits or subsidized housing, and the federal government is determining what financial support and health care they will be given and for how long, she said.
Cloutier said virtually all of the Afghans arriving in Rhode Island will be in that “humanitarian parole” category. She said that designation, which hadn’t been used in decades, is seen as a way to help Afghans who assisted the US war effort but didn’t fit into the other categories.
On Aug. 16, US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats representing Rhode Island, joined 44 other senators in calling for creation of a “humanitarian parole” category “specifically for women leaders, activists, human rights defenders, judges, parliamentarians, journalists, and members of the Female Tactical Platoon of the Afghan Special Security Forces.”
Cloutier noted that since immediate government support for those in the “humanitarian parole” category will be limited, “These folks will actually need more support than normal refugees.”
Cloutier said she is hoping a statewide campaign can be organized to support those Afghans. She noted that last year state and local officials joined the Dorcas International Institute and the Rhode Island Foundation in raising about $3 million for the “weR1 Rhode Island” fund to aid undocumented residents unable to benefit from most public programs in the pandemic.
The Afghans will be arriving at a time when housing is both scarce and increasingly unaffordable in Rhode Island, Cloutier said. So private fund-raising could help subsidize rent for the Afghans “until they are on their feet,” she said.
Employers such as Greystone, which manufactures components for the automotive, aerospace, and defense industries, have expressed an interest in hiring Afghans in Rhode Island, Cloutier said. And her organization is ready to help them learn English and otherwise succeed as employees, she said.
Over the past decade, 47 Afghan refugees have been resettled in Rhode Island through the Dorcas International Institute, Cloutier said. States such as California, Virginia, and Washington have much larger Afghan populations, and they are likely to receive more of the people being evacuated now, she said.
In recent years, refugees in Rhode Island have primarily come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria, along with some from Ukraine, Guatemala, and Colombia, Cloutier said.
Most refugees in Rhode Island initially settle in Providence, where they’re close to service providers and public transportation, but they often move to other communities once they’re established here, she said.
Cloutier said she has found Rhode Islanders to be “very welcoming” to refugees, and she thinks the Afghan evacuees will be especially welcome by military veterans, who feel “passionate” about what is happening in Afghanistan.
Bah, founder of the Refugee Dream Center in Providence, agreed.
A journalist in his native Gambia, he was jailed, beaten and tortured after he tried to cover a secret trial. He fled the smallest nation on the African mainland, barely escaping with his life, and found refuge here in America’s smallest state.
Bah said he has been frightened and worried for Afghans. “But it gives me pleasure to remember the good that was done for me, coming here and having the opportunity to rebuild my life,” he said. “It reminds me of the amazing humanitarian tendencies of Americans.”
He said his organization is already receiving phone calls and emails from people asking what they can do to help the Afghans.
Bah said he was glad to see McKee’s letter welcoming Afghans to Rhode Island. But now, he said, the focus must shift to providing the food, housing, medical care, and employment that they will need upon arrival.
The Afghans who are being evacuated saw their situation change abruptly, he noted. A cascading series of events led up to Thursday’s suicide bombing, which killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US service members.
“All of a sudden, it is like the world is turned upside down,” Bah said.
The Afghans arriving in Rhode Island will be entering a culture they are not familiar with, he said. Many will be dealing with trauma, in need of social connections and supportive counseling, he said.
As a small, close-knit state, Rhode Island can provide those Afghans with a large measure of comfort, Bah said. “It can have a more meaningful impact if we can connect on more of a personal level and provide a human touch when they come,” he said.