In the wake of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the Charlottesville and Albemarle County area is preparing to welcome at least 250 Afghan refugees over the next month. At a press conference at IX Art Park on Tuesday, local officials spoke about what must be done to welcome these families.
“The [International Rescue Committee] … is used to dealing with much larger numbers [of refugees) but never in this kind of compressed timeframe. So this is a huge challenge,” said Russ Linden, Task Force Chair with Welcoming Greater Charlottesville, a local organization that aims to support immigrants and refugees.
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan on Aug. 15 following the collapse of the government. This was two weeks before the U.S. was set to complete its troop withdrawal after a two-decade war.
The militant group ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, until U.S. troops descended upon the country following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban were known for their oppressive laws that took away almost all rights from women. Women were barred from attending school or working outside the home. They had to wear the all-covering burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside. The Taliban banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers.
Afghans are fleeing the country, worried that the Taliban will reimpose its oppressive laws or carry out revenge attacks against those who worked with Americans or the government. The first U.S. stop for thousands of Afghan refugees has been Fort Lee, an Army base near Petersburg. Tapped for its East Coast location and ability to quickly ramp up to serve as a temporary host installation, the base has been receiving refugees since July. This has resulted in high numbers of refugees coming to Virginia.
Charlottesville’s branch of the International Rescue Committee has been helping to settle refugees in the area. Members of the Charlottesville IRC office have gone to Fort Lee to help relocate refugees.
Palwasha Mohammad Asif, an Afghan refugee and student at Piedmont Virginia Community College, spoke about her experience coming to Charlottesville and the support refugees need.
“When we first came to the United States, it was hard for us to adjust with a new culture, new people and a new language. It was coming to a new world where everything was a new experience for us,” Asif said. She and her family first came to the United States in 2015.
“When we first came to the United States, IRC helped us in different aspects. For instance, taking English classes for improving our English, scheduling medical appointments and providing us social services. Through the IRC services, we started building relationships with other community members,” she said.
Asif now volunteers to help refugees settle in the area and has organized supply drives.
In an interview, Asif said the main concern she has is the high fees people must pay to apply for refugee status. It costs $535 to file I-130 immigration forms. Local organizations like International Neighbors have been trying to help people cover these fees for family members’ applications.
“If anyone can help us, they can call their senators to [ask them to] waive the fees … because every form has that high cost … it’s hard when you’re trying to relocate seven family members,” Asif said.
Charlottesville City Council Lloyd Snook encouraged community members to embrace Afghan refugees and support their needs.
“Throughout our history, Americans have welcomed immigrants with open arms. Unfortunately, there have also been times when we’ve turned our backs on people fleeing desperate situations. Now we again must choose—will we embrace them, or will we push them away?” he said.
“This is going to be a challenge for this community, but we know that Charlottesville and Albemarle will respond by giving the Afghans a warm welcome and by giving them the help that they need.”
Snook said the major needs the refugees will have are affordable housing and jobs.
Ned Gallaway, chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, asked the community to consider what direct action they can take to welcome refugees.
“The big affordable housing crisis is not going to be solved over the next couple of weeks so in the meantime, if you’re a landlord or you’re somebody that has a house or space available and can make that available to this effort, we need to hear from you. You can specifically reach out to the IRC, and they will work with you,” he said.
“If you’re a new business or you’re open and running, consider providing some job opportunities for those who are relocating.”
Harriet Kuhr, director of the IRC’s Charlottesville and Richmond offices, said the most major need the organization is trying to fill for refugees is housing. There are a lot of legal restrictions. For example, people can’t put refugees up in a spare room. It must at least be a separate apartment. They’ve also struggled to find people willing to lease to refugees with no American credit history.
“We’re struggling even to find temporary housing, because we’re putting people into hotels, and the hotels are filling up,” she said. “The way we usually work with refugees we might know three weeks ahead of time and we have time to plan; we’re getting people in one and two days notice right now.”
Kuhr said IRC is looking for individual people as well as organizations such as churches and other faith groups who are willing to lease out spaces to refugees as well as people interested in volunteering to help refugees settle in the area.
“We need volunteers that can help teach people English, drive them to appointments, things like that during those first six months, and help them get really oriented to life in this country,” Kuhr said.
Kuhr said people who want to help can email email@example.com.