Kari Miller’s phone is ringing off the hook this week.
Two families that recently fled Afghanistan when the Taliban seized control of the country arrived in Charlottesville and needed assistance immediately.
The families need homes so that they can get out of the hotels they’re staying in, so that their children can start school with their new peers next week. They need food, clothing, transportation and other types of care, said Miller, a former teacher and founder of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit International Neighbors.
The families need community.
Miller, along with the three other members of the International Neighbors staff and a number of local volunteers — a number of them Afghan refugees themselves — are working quickly to get these families feeling as comfortable and safe as possible while they wait for legal paperwork to be processed through another organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Over the course of the week, anyone with a television, computer or newspaper has seen images of members of the Taliban, a militant group that ran Afghanistan in the 1990s, before U.S.-led troops invaded in 2001, physically taking over cities and towns, as well as the country’s capital, Kabul.
Among those horrifying, devastating images are ones of people crowding around a U.S. Air Force aircraft on the runway of the Kabul airport, desperate to escape the Taliban. Some ran alongside the plane as one would to catch a bus. Others clung to the fuselage and fell to the runway when the plane — which was full, mostly with folks who have Special Immigrant Visa status into the U.S. because they’ve aided U.S. troops — began to move.
A number of refugee families have settled in Charlottesville in recent decades, in part due to the longtime presence of the IRC, which administers government programs. It is a large, nonprofit humanitarian aid organization that operates in 40 countries around the world and in 25 states. It has two offices in Virginia, one in Richmond and another in Charlottesville.
Since the IRC’s Charlottesville office opened in 1998, it has helped resettle folks from many countries, said Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the Charlottesville office, but Charlottesville does have a significant Afghan population for a city its size. And some of those families have been in town since the 1980s, long before the IRC opened its office here. Many of them have arrived in the last 20 years, since the U.S. first led an invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of Al-Qaida in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and its troops and allies continued military action in the country.
With all the news concerning Afghan refugees — and with local folks wondering how they might be able to help those who arrive in our community — Kuhr gave Charlottesville Tomorrow a crash course that she called “refugee resettlement 101.”
There’s a difference in what the word “refugee” means in everyday conversation and what it means legally. “Here’s how I always do it in my head,” said Kuhr. “I say ‘refugee’ with a little r and ‘Refugee’ with a capital R.”
Colloquially, a refugee is anyone who is displaced, said Kuhr. For instance, people often speak of Hurricane Katrina refugees, who were displaced from their New Orleans homes after the storm wreaked havoc on the city and surrounding areas. More and more, we’re talking about climate refugees, folks whose homes have been destroyed by natural disasters that have occurred with increased frequency as a result of climate change.
The Afghan families that just arrived in town are also refugees.
But a “capital R Refugee” is someone who arrives in the U.S. under a specific immigration category, explained Kuhr. “It’s based on a persecution claim in very strictly limited categories, so based on your religion, your political beliefs, your ethnicity. It’s very, very limited,” she said, adding that natural disasters — like the recent, massively devastating earthquake in Haiti — do not qualify people for refugee immigration status into the U.S.
In order to qualify as a refugee in the U.S., one must have what is called “a credible fear,” or “a well-founded fear of persecution,” in the legal language, said Kuhr. It’s not about living in a dangerous place with a lot of crime. It’s that an individual is personally threatened — that if they return home, someone will attempt to kill them and possibly succeed.
“The other key element of what makes someone a refugee is you can’t be in your home country,” said Kuhr. “You have to have fled into another country. You must cross an international border, [and] when you’re in another country, you come under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. And for the most part, that initial screening is handled by the U.S. So the refugees that we’ve resettled all these years from Afghanistan, they’d fled into Pakistan, Turkey, sometimes even into Russia, into Iran, another bordering country. And then, they have no legal status in the country they’ve fled into.”
If someone flees into Pakistan, for instance, they might be given a work permit and permission to stay. That’s as far as they go; they’re considered safe. But another person who flees into Pakistan may be put into a refugee camp and told to stay behind its barbed wire. In that second case, said Kuhr, that person would be eligible to go to a third country that would give them a more permanent solution.
Kuhr said that the average time a person is displaced before they get the opportunity to go to a third country is 17 years. “People often stay in camps for a very long time.”
A quick resettlement is three to four years. “It’s a very, very slow process,” Kuhr added, noting that even when people are invited to come to the United States as refugees, resettlement is an 18 to 24-month process … and that’s just getting the basics in place.
Kuhr and Miller both expect to see an increase in refugees — both big and little R — coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan in the coming weeks, months and years.
They also expect their organizations to assist Afghan SIVs, folks with Special Immigrant Visas who’ve worked, for example, the American Embassy in Afghanistan or as interpreters with allied forces or alongside international non-governmental groups and who are in danger because of their association with the U.S., said Kuhr.
The SIV is a special immigration category related to, but legally separate from, the refugee category. It was initially created by Congress to help Iraqi citizens who’d assisted the U.S. in their home country. Folks with SIVs can fly straight to the U.S. from their country, and when they arrive, they get permanent legal residence in the city in which they arrive and have access to the same government resources that the IRC administers to refugees (and asylum-seekers). Their resettlement is often more immediate, but still not necessarily quick or simple.
Normally, the IRC will receive several weeks’ notice before a family arrives in town, but lately, families have been showing up — like the families mentioned above — or the IRC receives a call from Fort Lee, just outside of Petersburg, letting the organization know that they’re putting folks on a van and will be in Charlottesville in a couple of hours. SIV’s usually have more of a choice as to where they go, said Kuhr, but most refugees don’t get to pick.
Many Afghan refugees have been waiting for years to enter the U.S., said Kuhr. And many of those who are just fleeing now likely have a very long, perhaps even treacherous, wait ahead of them.
But when they do arrive, there are resources here for them. While International Neighbors and the IRC do not work together — Miller notes that the IRC’s motto is “from harm to home,” whereas International Neighbors focuses on “surviving to thriving” — both organizations have helped hundreds of families in the area, and they have fairly high profiles in the community.
The IRC touts a list of resources that includes legal assistance with immigration, case management for the most vulnerable folks, help finding and accessing health care, housing, work, education and more.
International Neighbors, which Miller founded in 2015, has a more person-to-person focus. The organization, which has grown in scope since it began offering services in 2016, currently serves 223 families and individuals, but there’s always a waitlist for the services, said Miller, which include assistance finding housing, clothes, food, health care, careers, etc. They also run a car donation program and match immigrant families with local ones to hopefully help ease the pain and shock of arriving in a new place without much — or any — family support. (Currently, they’ve got about 20 Afghan families matched here in town.)
“It’s not one size fits all,” every family is different, said Miller. “We listen to what they need and what they want.”
And what they usually want more than anything, said Miller, is people. They want friends, they want shoulders to cry on when they’re worried about friends and family back home. They want people to share a birthday cake, a meal, a ride across town, a laugh.
Kuhr said that overall, Charlottesville is an attractive place for many refugee families — it’s usually more quiet and much safer than their home cities and towns, and there are a lot of community resources here. (Since Charlottesville has an established Afghan community, including a number of Afghan-owned businesses like Grand Market, Medina Market and Afghan Kabob, it’s particularly attractive for Afghans, she said.)
But Charlottesville is expensive, and it’s tough for many folks — particularly large families — to access their most basic need: housing.
This is perhaps especially true because these folks often have to work two, three and even four low-wage jobs to make ends meet for their families, even if they’re highly educated in their home countries. Someone who has a master’s degree in Afghanistan might be cleaning toilets in the U.S., said Miller. And while that might be enough for an individual or a family to survive, it’s certainly not enough to thrive.
While plenty of folks in the community are welcoming to refugees and immigrants and relish the opportunity to learn about different cultures, language, food and more, not everyone is so open-minded or open-armed.
Some folks complain that their new neighbors don’t speak English or use racial slurs and other derogatory names to address them, said Miller. Once, someone, or multiple people, spray-painted “go home terrorist” on the door of an Afghan refugee’s home before pelting it with tomatoes and eggs. When Miller asked him if he was OK, he replied, “My brother’s head was thrown at my door by the Taliban. I’m OK.”
Life in the U.S. can be tough, even if it’s not as overtly threatened as it might have been in these refugees’ home countries. Miller said that more than a handful of refugees who’ve settled in Charlottesville have died by suicide (“even one is too many,” she said), and since March of this year, International Neighbors has said goodbye to 16 families who had to move to another state because Charlottesville, and Virginia overall, were too expensive.
Plus, refugees and SIVs must pay their airfare back to the government, Miller noted. “You land with debt of $6,000, $8,000 depending on your family size. And then you get a minimum wage job … it’s really atrocious.”
“But they’re amazing people,” Miller said, people who contribute quite a bit to the community, to “the global world we have in our community. And what we’ve seen is, as people are given hand ups — some might call them handouts, but we call them hand ups — 100% of our folks who’ve become independent volunteer with us. By investing in the people around you, you’re going to invest in the community.”
Four International Neighbors families have become financially free enough to donate to the organization, said Miller. They know firsthand how difficult resettlement is — financially, emotionally, socially — and they want to help.
So as folks arrive in our community from Afghanistan and elsewhere, as the phones keep ringing off the hook with folks needing help, Miller has some advice: Don’t stare; say hello; a smile is universal; invest in your neighbors.