Charities and resettlement groups in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are preparing for the arrival of Afghan refugees who have been cleared to resettle in the United States by raising money, searching for housing, and forming welcome committees.
Governors of both states have said the refugees are welcome here, although there is no official word yet how many would come and when they would arrive. For now, charity officials in Massachusetts expect as many as 1,000 Afghans could come to the state.
Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty said his city is prepared to take 300 to 350 evacuees. And the International Institute of New England, one of the groups that contracts with the federal government for resettlement services, is making plans to assist about 150 evacuees, most likely in the Lowell area, where there already is a small community of resettled Afghans.
“We are really working on securing housing, securing support, making sure we are staffed,” said Caroline Rowe, managing director of the institute’s Lowell office. “We are hiring two new Afghan case specialists who speak Dari and Pashto to provide additional support to these families.”
Meanwhile the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s main refugee resettlement agency, and Catholic Social Services have told the federal government that they are interested in resettling a maximum of 200 to 250 Afghans in Rhode Island through their national organizations.
“Even though we are a small state, we can make a big difference,” said Omar Bah, executive director of the Refugee Dream Center in Providence.
On Wednesday, Bah’s organization hosted a meeting of Afghan families who had resettled to Rhode Island within the past few years to discuss welcoming new evacuees. They said they know all too well what it’s like to be plucked from the place where you’ve lived your whole life and plopped down in the middle of a new, unfamiliar land.
“You are working for 30 or 40 years, you have a house, and the next day you have nothing — just the dress you have on,” said Saddiqa Alizada, a Warwick resident who arrived from Afghanistan five years ago.
The United States has begun resettling tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees, many of whom worked for the US military during the 20-year war. Most are being initially housed at military installations around the country.
Most evacuees won’t be eligible for public benefits because they’ll be coming to the country on “humanitarian parole” status — a designation short of full refugee status. But each person will receive a cellphone and $1,250, along with furnished housing.
In Massachusetts, the International Institute of New England will provide translation services and help finding jobs and getting driver’s licenses. Each child will be given a new backpack and will receive help enrolling in school.
The housing, pocket money, and cellphones are paid for through the institute’s federal contract. Everything else — furnishings and linens, backpacks and school supplies — is funded by donations, Rowe said.
Since 2014, the institute has helped relocate about 330 Afghans, the majority settled in Lowell — making it a natural fit for the new arrivals, Rowe said.
“We do have a great network of landlords in and around the Lowell area who trust us, who like us, who like working with us, and enjoy housing our clients,” she said.
The same with employers. A network of trusted — and trusting — employers, primarily in health care and manufacturing, also stands at the ready in the Lowell area, she said. The institute also provides job-readiness courses, as well as training for certified nursing assistants.
Catholic Charities of Boston also is preparing for the arrival of Afghans, looking for apartments in Chelsea, Revere, Dorchester, Hull, and Plymouth, said Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigrant services for the nonprofit.
“Right now, the real focus is on ensuring that people do have a place to sleep and have their most basic of basic needs met,” Perhot said.
Finding housing is no small challenge because of high rents, she said. “We rely a lot on immigrant landlords who are excellent in helping to realize how important it is to give another newcomer a start.”
Catholic Charities is partnering with Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston to raise money for the evacuees. CJP established the Fund for Afghan Immigrants and Refugees on Aug. 24 and has raised about $100,000.
In 2017, CJP raised $640,000 to provide legal support for immigrants coming to the southern borders of the United States from Latin America.
“Our job is to stand at the ready, whether it’s 20 families, 50 families, 75 families, and we know that those resources will be put to immediate and good use,” said Sarah Abramson, CJP’s vice president of strategy and impact.
Once the difficult task of securing housing has been accomplished, there’s still plenty more to do, she said.
“After we find those homes, we fill them with things that transform them from a house to a home,” Abramson said. “We don’t just want people coming to bare walls. We want them coming to a warm and inviting space. Fund-raising is the fuel for all of this.”
Among the Afghans living in Rhode Island, there is intense worry about relatives who were unable to get out of the country before the United States ended its evacuation on Monday.
Masuma Ishaq Ali said two of her brothers-in-law remain in Kabul. One worked with the US Army and the other with a human rights organization. She said her mother-in-law and one of her brothers-in-law tried to get out of Afghanistan via Pakistan, but the border was closed.
Ali said she is extremely worried about them because the Taliban is targeting anyone who helped the United States, and to make matters worse, one brother-in-law has a 9-month-old son who needs surgery.
“The doctor says he needs surgery this month or he may not be able to talk,” she said, showing a photo of the boy on her iPhone.
At the meeting in Providence Wednesday, Ali and five other Afghan adults, and three of their children, talked about providing the new arrivals with basic necessities such as food.
Here in the land of Rhode Island-style calamari and New York System hot wieners, the Afghans said they plan to cook up some qabuli pulao — a mixture of rice, beef, or lamb with raisins and sliced carrots that’s considered Afghanistan’s national dish.
And Alizada added that she knows the first thing she will give those families: “A warm hug,” she said, smiling. “If we can do nothing else, we want to give them a warm hug.”