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The Afghan Immigration Crisis Is Bigger, Faster, More Traumatic. Are Ministries Ready?

Tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees are coming to the US without special status or government funding for resettlement, putting more responsibility on Christian donors and volunteers.
The Afghan Immigration Crisis Is Bigger, Faster, More Traumatic. Are Ministries Ready?
Image: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Eileen Wilson pulled up to work at the Hope Center for refugees and immigrants in Cleveland, only to find Afghan families from the surrounding area and beyond standing in line at its entrance and waiting in cars in the parking lot. Some had driven hours, even from out of state.

The crowds were a spillover from an emergency legal clinic held earlier that week in partnership with Catholic Charities. They were there to get help for their family members trapped in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.

Every day for weeks, Afghans have showed up at the Hope Center, a ministry of local nonprofit, Building Hope in the City. They’re placed on a waiting list to be assigned a pro bono lawyer to help them file immigration paperwork for up to three family members back home.

“I think we’ve met most of the Afghan people in Cleveland,” said Wilson, who directs the nonprofit.

A founding member of the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland, Building Hope in the City is the only evangelical organization in Ohio providing specialized services for refugees, including a full-time attorney on staff, after World Relief Akron shut down in 2019.

Within four days, it was able to exceed its fundraising goal and collect over $66,000 from donors, enough to file applications for over a hundred family members under the provisions of a designated immigration status called humanitarian parole.

With 18,000 Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications already backlogged and the lengthy timeline of the traditional refugee route, parolee status—once rarely used—is now being encouraged by the government as a stopgap legal measure to get as many Afghans into and through the immigration pipeline as quickly as possible, once their application is approved.

The parole application is a 30-page document, written in complex language with legal nuances only an immigration lawyer can navigate, and costs $575 per person to file. So if a father were filing for his wife and three children to join him in the States, he would have to come up with $2,300, which could triple after the legal fees of hiring an attorney at an hourly rate.

But in just over a week, Building Hope in the City collected over $100,000, including donations from nearly a hundred first-time donors. Most of the money went to filing applications, and the rest has been set aside to help with the costs of resettling them once they get approved to arrive in the Cleveland area.

“As a combination of an immigration, school, and community center, we are uniquely situated by God,” Wilson said. “And we are more fluid because we’re not government funded. We are funded by individuals, organizations, and churches—so we are funded to be able to move quickly if we need to.”

Wilson says they are still filing parole applications, and while none have been approved yet, they were told the government would fully process them within an estimated 90–120 days. The administration announced Wednesday which states would take in a share of the first 37,000 arrivals.

More arrivals, quicker processing

The Hope Center in Cleveland is one of many organizations all over the United States rallying evangelical support for incoming Afghan refugees, as Christians across the ideological spectrum have united in prayer, fundraising, and programming to help.

World Relief, an evangelical resettlement organization that began serving refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War, has seen an unprecedented level of support from local church partners and community members.

In light of the Afghan refugee crisis, the organization gained 3,000 new donors between August 7 and September 7, a 1,500 percent increase over the same period last year.

While the uptick in funding is a good start, World Relief is still far short of what will be needed to resettle its share of incoming Afghans. Of over 50,000 Afghans expected to be received in the next 90 days, the ministry will oversee 7,000–10,000 resettlements, most of whom are parolees.

“We’re anticipating resettling roughly as many individuals in the next three months as in the past three years combined, with a capacity that’s been significantly reduced during the previous presidential administration, and with ongoing uncertainty about how much governmental support the 7,000–10,000 Afghans being paroled into the US will qualify for,” said Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization for World Relief.

Up to 20,000 of the incoming Afghans may also be SIVs, which is a special status for those who have worked with the US military. They got stuck in the pipeline during the Taliban takeover, unable to activate their SIV status before the US embassy closed or to locate the military member they worked for to sign their paperwork in time. The number of Afghans who will apply for refugee status and wait to be screened later in United Nations camps abroad is yet to be seen.

Parolees are essentially coming in under similar legal provisions for residence in the US as SIVs and refugees, but they are being approved to arrive at a much quicker pace.

“We don’t have a year and a half to three years for them to be processed,” said Soerens, “So the goal here would be to get them to the United States and to safety as soon as they have cleared the security vetting process.”

Parolee status is a temporary solution to getting people into the country and does not offer a path to permanent residency or citizenship like the others. Parolees also do not get the same federal funding allocated as the government provides for refugees and SIVs, but resettlement agencies are hoping the State Department will begin to offer similar levels of support through their recently established Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) program.

“This is an opportunity, as we're anticipating 70,000 Afghans to come to the United States, over 50,000 without that SIV status,” World Relief’s Karen Spencer said last week at the Care for Refugees workshop, which outlined how local churches can help welcome and resettle their new Afghan neighbors. “No one knows how we're going to provide services for those 50,000—whether they are resettled through World Relief or another resettlement agency—so churches need to rise up.”

Right now, World Relief is promising a $100,000 matching opportunity for new members of their monthly giving community, The Path, as a way to encourage recent followers to sustain their support for Afghans.

Church partners

World Relief and Send Relief, the compassion ministry arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), cohosted the workshop event that kicked off a new partnership between the two organizations. Nearly 500 leaders and laypeople registered to attend, most of them tuning in online.

Those in person met near Send Relief’s headquarters in the small city of Clarkston, Georgia, designated for refugee resettlement since the ’70s and dubbed “the most diverse square mile in North America.”

In the past month, 240 local churches have expressed interest in partnering with their efforts to resettle Afghans, and more than 3,500 people have applied to serve as volunteers.

The Chicago-area World Relief office has processed over a thousand new volunteer inquiries. At least 350 indicated they would like to become a “Friendship Partner”—which involves the high level of commitment in walking alongside an individual for the first several months after they arrive in the country. The Durham office had 946 new volunteers fill out applications, with another 223 waiting for follow-up.

Over 200 leaders participated in a National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) webinar on the refugee crisis. The NAE has met with members of Congress and White House staff to help bring more Afghan families to safety after the military’s August 31 deadline for withdrawal.

“The NAE is continuing to push for stronger diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to protect and resettle our allies who were left behind,” said Galen Carey, VP of the organization.

The speed and volume at which these parolees are being processed, compared with the years it would take for SIVs and refugees, has caused concern for some who question whether it is enough time to properly vet them.

“Once people have been evacuated, and they’re in this—what they call lily pads, or third countries—they are doing those same security checks,” said Elizabeth Neumann—the former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the US Department of Homeland Security—during the NAE webinar. “They’re collecting biometrics, they’re collecting their biographics, and they’re running them against all of the US government’s holdings, or derogatory information. And if there is a hit, they’re putting those individuals into secondary and they’re getting processed accordingly.

“I was so pleased that in the process of redesigning the system, that corners weren’t cut,” she said. “I’m glad that they were able to accomplish that in a very short period of time.”

The speedy process still presents several challenges on the resettlement front, mainly finding places for them to live during an already tight housing market. Many Afghans requested cities with well-established Afghan communities and their own family members: Sacramento and Modesto, California; Washington, DC; Seattle; and the Dallas–Fort Worth metro areas.

“About one in nine Afghans in the United States lives in the Sacramento area,” said Soerens. So far, more than half of the 400 SIVs World Relief has welcomed since the beginning of August have been resettled there. State Department projections show California will take in more Afghan arrivals than any other state.

For incoming families who are unable to stay with their family and friends, World Relief is partnering with Airbnb to provide free temporary housing.

The initial 90-day window focuses on the basics: finding housing and employment, applying for a social security card, enrolling children in a local school, said Kerry Ham, the local director for World Relief Sacramento. Then, they can work their way up the hierarchy of needs to establish deeper levels of integration in their communities.

Trauma and mental health needs

One of World Relief’s focuses is on dealing with the trauma incoming Afghans will face upon their escape from Afghanistan and entrance to America. Because of these accelerated immigration processes, their experiences in their home country will be much fresher than for Afghans resettled in previous years.

“I can tell you there is a significant amount of mental health needs. The refugee process is born out of trauma always,” Ham said. But for Afghans “this is very acute, and it's a lot of people at one time”—so “much of the funding we’re looking at for the next year is developing those pathways to help have thriving, integrated, brand-new Americans.”

World Relief Sacramento has enlisted Afghan counselors from the community to come alongside newly arrived Afghan individuals in the process. Many evacuees suffer from survivor’s guilt in leaving behind loved ones who are now facing the risk of being targeted and killed by the Taliban.

The primary factor when it comes to dealing with mental health issues is being aware of and sensitive to the religious background of Afghans, who are coming from a country that is over 99 percent Muslim.

“The vast majority of Afghans have never been around a Christian, have never been in a Christian home,” said Ham. “But that brings a great opportunity.”

“We have a biblical calling to welcome the stranger—and there are no qualifications or caveats on that,” he said. “The refugee program is something I believe the United States can be very proud of the 40-plus year history of doing just that—regardless of ethnicity, regardless of faith.”

Ham’s staff recently sent out an Amazon Wishlist link for people to order supplies for the newly resettled Afghans, and his office receives an average of 80 boxes a day, piling up higher than the door. World Relief offices in Chicago, Durham, and other places are also reporting fully stocked warehouses and higher levels of engagement across every single metric.

“We look to live out our values and the example and teachings of Jesus—to be able to live out that biblical calling—and so I'm happy that we are still doing that,” Ham says. “Seeing the welcoming nature of churches has been very heartening.”

Advocacy in Canada and the UK

The US is not the only nation where Christians are leading the welcome effort for Afghans.

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau promised to resettle 20,000 Afghans in the wake of the crisis. As in the US, many of Canada’s resettlement organizations are faith-based.

The country also has a sponsorship program where private citizens, often churches and ministries, commit to support a refugee or family for a year. “This has been a great opportunity for churches to respond to those in need of refuge. And they did,” said Anita Levesque, with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).

Journey Home Community, an evangelical resettlement agency operating in the Vancouver area, has begun by advocating to reunite members of the Afghan community with family members trapped in Afghanistan.

“Some of these are named on permanent residence applications in some stage of processing, so we decided to respond by advocating for these families—bringing names and file numbers to the attention of members of Parliament and hopefully to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada,” the government department overseeing immigration, said Brad Kinnie, director of Journey Home.

“In this unique time, we feel a responsibility to our friends,” Kinnie says. “God loves us and loves the Afghan community and people. And it has been a privilege to walk alongside our community in this way.”

Across the pond, a network of evangelical organizations in the United Kingdom is also mobilizing to equip local churches to welcome a wave of its newest neighbors—including Afghan Welcome, a coalition formed in partnership with Welcome Churches.

“I received a last-minute call from the UK Home Office asking for emergency help supporting Afghan refugees,” said Afghan Welcome’s director Krish Kandiah. “A few emails later, and 35 church leaders—in exactly the right towns—came out to assist Afghan families evacuated into hotels near their churches. Due to a political communication breakdown, the families had received very little support until the churches showed up.”

The joint venture includes an Emergency Afghan Fund to cover the cost of services and support to meet practical needs and help them adjust into a new community. The initiative began with a focus on mothers and children under five, collecting 33,000 donates of baby supplies. It’s transitioning to helping with education, employment, and social integration.

“Our team has had the privilege of traveling around the country, visiting newly arrived Afghans who served alongside British troops in Afghanistan as interpreters, mechanics, and embassy staff,” said Welcome Church’s joint CEO Emily Holden. “We have been connecting them with local churches who are ready to welcome them.”

Since the situation in Afghanistan unfolded, Holden says they have seen a huge increase in the number of local churches who have signed up to be a part of their network.

“We have over 600 churches signed up to welcome refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK, including Afghans,” Holden says. “This isn’t about one organization responding to the needs on our doorstep; it is about God’s church coming together to fulfill our calling to ‘welcome the stranger.’”

As Kandiah said, “The Christian response to Afghan refugees has reminded me how much I love the church”—living up to its potential as “an incredible force for good in the world.”

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