PROVIDENCE — A Democratic state legislator is drawing criticism after questioning how Rhode Island can house and support Afghan refugees when it already has many people facing hunger and homelessness.
Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat who is a member of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, issued a statement this week as Rhode Island prepares to welcome up to 250 people who were evacuated following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
“While I welcome any individual from any country that is fleeing from persecution, violence and natural disasters,” Williams wrote, “how are we able to resettle, house, and support these refugees while we continue to ignore the plights of our current Rhode Islanders who have no guaranteed roof over their head, no food in their stomachs and no money in their pockets?”
Williams, chairwoman of the House Labor Committee, said she sees people in Rhode Island facing mental illness, addiction, and poverty, with no place to go.
“At some point, the people living on our streets today were contributing taxpayers, and they should be the first in line to be welcomed, helped, and properly assisted,” she wrote. “I cannot in good conscience remain silent about our fellow Rhode Islanders who are desperately in need of the same support and services that will be given to these refugees.”
That statement drew sharp criticism from Omar Bah, founder and executive director of the Providence-based Refugee Dream Center, which is preparing to help welcome Afghan evacuees.
“All of a sudden, a person who usually is talking about representing people of color, immigrants, and poor people is speaking exactly like (former President Donald) Trump,” he said. “She is speaking from both sides of her mouth. If Trump said that, everyone would condemn it.”
Bah urged Williams to retract the statement, saying it could feed misinformation and hatred directed at Afghan evacuees.
“The Afghans are people who supported Americans and risked their lives,” he said. “They were translators and drivers and allies, and it is a humanitarian crisis. I don’t understand how someone would try to categorize them as the ‘other.’ "
Bah said he would have been surprised if such a statement was issued by a conservative Republican because many conservatives have been supportive of Afghans who helped U.S. troops battle the Taliban. But, he said, “I am most particularly surprised that it would come from a Black Democratic legislator who has championed immigrants and people of color over the years.”
Meanwhile, Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, offered support for the Afghan evacuees, saying she has a “different take on the situation” than Williams.
“As Rhode Island welcomes the tired, hungry, and traumatized Afghan refugees who have escaped the brutal hands of the Taliban, I for one will be looking forward not to discourse about who gets a seat at the table, but in building a larger table,” Fenton-Fung told the Globe.
“Whether it’s private or public support for interpreters, medical assistance, and legal aid, it will be my pleasure to work hard with leaders like Omar Bah and the Refugee Dream Center to welcome these strangers to our state, and embrace them as friends,” she said.
In an interview, Williams said she issued the statement on Wednesday because she is dealing with issues of hunger and homelessness in the community each day.
“First and foremost, I stated I welcome the refugees — that is the part everyone is skipping over,” Williams said. “I welcome anyone from anywhere. However, I want to point out and emphasize that while bringing these individuals and families over here to provide them with a better way, we have our own citizens right here begging and pleading for the same opportunities about to be given out to strangers.”
A dozen Afghan evacuees have already arrived in Rhode Island, and another 250 or so could begin arriving in late October or early November, according to Kathleen Cloutier, executive director of the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s main refugee resettlement agency.
Governor Daniel J. McKee wrote to President Joe Biden in August, saying “Rhode Island stands ready to welcome Afghan allies and families eager to seek solace and safety in our state.” 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.
Meanwhile, one man who worked for the US government as a translator in Afghanistan has arrived in Rhode Island with a special immigrant visa, Cloutier said. Also, 11 Afghans have arrived after receiving unclear instructions and choosing to stay with friends in Rhode Island rather than going to a military base, she said. Two families are staying in Newport, and one is in Providence, she said.
“We need to take care of everybody,” Cloutier said. “Yes, we do need to help all of our neighbors — not one or the other, new neighbors and old neighbors.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.