PROVIDENCE — A dozen Afghan evacuees have already arrived in Rhode Island, and another 250 or so could begin arriving in late October or early November, the head of the state’s main refugee resettlement agency said Friday.
Kathleen Cloutier, executive director of the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, said about 30 people joined a Zoom call on Friday as their organizations prepare to welcome those evacuated following the Aug. 30 withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Governor Daniel J. McKee had written to President Joe Biden, saying “Rhode Island stands ready to welcome Afghan allies and families eager to seek solace and safety in our state.” The Dorcas International Institute has received approval through its national counterpart to resettle 150 or more Afghans in Rhode Island, and Catholic Social Services has requested approval to resettle another 100 Afghans here, she said.
But in the meantime, 12 Afghans have arrived in Rhode Island, Cloutier said.
The first was a man who worked for the US government as a translator in Afghanistan and arrived here with a special immigrant visa, she said. The institute is helping him resettle in Providence, and he plans to help the institute as an interpreter as other Afghans arrive, she said.
Another 11 Afghans arrived in Rhode Island after leaving the military bases where they were taken after being evacuated, Cloutier said.
Those Afghans are not obligated to remain at the military bases, and some have reported that they left because “the conditions on the bases are not always adequate,” she said. “From what I’m hearing, the conditions on the bases vary widely.”
Those “walk-ins” will receive support from Dorcas International Institute and other groups, but they are being encouraged to report to nearby military bases to complete the processing for immigration status and government services, she said.
“They are in a limbo situation,” Cloutier said. “We will work to support them and the folks they are staying with, but there is no formal guidance as to what to do with those walking in at this time.”
About 60,000 Afghans have been evacuated to the United States, but only 37,000 “spots” have been identified for resettling them, she said. So it’s likely that the State Department will ask Dorcas International Institute and other groups to handle more to meet that demand, she said.
The Associated Press has reported that the Biden administration is notifying state officials of how many in the first group of nearly 37,000 Afghan evacuees are to be resettled in their states. That tally includes 900 Afghans in Massachusetts, 310 in Connecticut, 150 in Rhode Island, 100 in Vermont, 100 in New Hampshire, and another 100 in Maine.
The number of Afghans coming to Rhode Island would grow to 250 once Catholic Social Services receives approval, Cloutier said. With an average family size of about four people, that would mean about 63 Afghan families coming to Rhode Island, she said.
In a busy year, Rhode Island might resettle 250 refugees, but now it’s looking like it will resettle 250 people in the space of three or four months, Cloutier said.
“We have never had this kind of scale before in this period of time,” she said. “This program ends in March, so depending on when we start to see new arrivals, it will be a compressed time period.”
To gear up for that influx, about 30 people took part in Friday’s Zoom call, including representatives of Catholic Social Services, the Refugee Dream Center, Women’s Refugee Care, the American Red Cross of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Foundation, Southside Community Land Trust, the Providence Public School District, and others.
Cloutier said the organizations are focused on creating a central repository for donated furniture, volunteer opportunities, and financial aid for the Afghan evacuees. In the meantime, she said people can donate to Dorcas International Institute and it will share those resources with others helping the Afghans.
Friday’s Zoom call included Keith Cooper, executive director of Beautiful Day, a Providence-based nonprofit that makes granola and prepares refugees to enter the job market.
Cooper said the number of refugees arriving in Rhode Island has been low in recent years, during the Trump administration. But the organization has been trying to build up capacity to handle “this type of crisis,” he said. “We have been trying to prepare for this for a long time. I feel like we are in pretty good shape for it.”
Beautiful Day expects to be able to add new Afghan arrivals to its youth job training program, and to hire Afghans to sell granola products at farmers’ markets around the state, he said.
Cooper said he hopes Beautiful Day can provide the Afghans with training, income, and experience while they get a handle on other key elements of their transition, such as housing. “So then when a full-time job opportunity comes up, they will be ready to jump into it,” he said.
Also, he hopes the farmers’ markets can provide the new arrivals with valuable chances to connect with the community.
“It’s crucial relationship building and storytelling opportunities,” Cooper said. “It’s social capital, and that is how everything gets done in Rhode Island. If you don’t have a relationship, it’s really hard to get started.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.