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As vulnerable Afghans flee Kabul, US faith groups prepare to aid them

Faith-based refugee resettlement groups are mobilizing to help Afghans as they arrive — and from afar.

U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. On Monday, the U.S. military and officials' focus was on Kabul's airport, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes. (AP Photo/Shekib Rahmani)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — In early August, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah reported to Fort Lee, an Army post in Virginia, to welcome and offer legal assistance to Afghans who aided the U.S. during its decades in the country. The people she met — Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, but little else — were racked with mixed emotions after being evacuated.

They expressed relief, gratitude and a combination of “fear for those left behind and the sadness of leaving the only home they’ve ever known,” said Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Then, a week ago, flights into Fort Lee abruptly stopped. 

Vignarajah, along with the heads of other agencies that make up the backbone of the U.S. refugee resettlement apparatus, pivoted to a role they undertook many times under the Trump administration, which reduced the number of refugees to a historic low: arguing for more vulnerable foreign nationals to be processed and delivered safely to U.S. shores.

This time, however, the crisis was particularly urgent. 

In a blitz of traditional and social media advocacy, Vignarajah and a slate of other leaders — Mark Hetfield of the Jewish agency HIAS as well as representatives of World Relief, Church World Service and the Episcopal Church — joined other religious and secular refugee aid organizations in calling for President Joe Biden to do more to aid vulnerable Afghans.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah. Photo courtesy of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah. Photo courtesy of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

“We can’t tie a life-or-death humanitarian evacuation to an arbitrary timeline,” Vignarajah tweeted on Thursday. “Our government made a commitment and we can’t give up until the job is done. If political will matches military might, we can still pull off the boldest evacuation in modern history.”

They also repeatedly expressed frustration with assertions by the White House that SIVs and vulnerable Afghans weren’t evacuated earlier because some didn’t want to leave and challenged the government’s initial Aug. 31 departure deadline.

According to survey data provided to RNS by Data for Progress, a majority of Christians (54%) believe Biden should speed up the process of giving American allies in Afghanistan immigrant visas to come to the U.S.

Those who considered themselves evangelical or born again Christians were slightly less likely to say the same (48%). (The survey was not large enough to include other faith groups or combinations of religion and race.)

Criticism of the administration mounted as the U.S. government scrambled to retain control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Reports abound of vulnerable Afghans and foreign nationals struggling to reach the airport, citing roadblocks by Taliban forces. In at least one instance, tear gas was fired by soldiers into throngs clamoring for entry, although it was unclear which fighting force the soldiers belonged to.

RELATED: Biden authorizes new refugee funds, fends off criticism from aid groups

On Friday Biden told reporters at the White House that U.S. forces have evacuated 13,000 people since Aug. 14, and he promised SIVs the U.S. will “stand by its commitment.”

The refugee agencies are now awaiting new planeloads of evacuees, even as they have continued to help Afghan SIVs who landed before the fall of Kabul. The local office of Lutheran Social Services, according to the Washingtonian, has been transferring some refugees to temporary housing in the capital area. Local churches are reportedly pooling resources to provide more permanent housing solutions as LSS set about soliciting sponsorships or gift cards for hotel stays. 

In addition, staff from a variety of organizations continue to aid Afghans with SIV applications, as well as the few who made it across the ocean this week. Among them is Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, whose director of immigrant and refugee services, Mario Russell, told RNS his team has assisted 13 Afghan SIVs who managed to make it into the U.S. over the past 10 days.

“Our case managers have met these families at the airport and brought them to temporary housing, providing basic necessities and assistance, including food, transportation assistance, clothing, access to healthcare and, over time, placement of children in schools and helping the heads of households with finding work,” Russell said in a statement.

Bill Canny, who directs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services, said that the flow of refugees may have been halted into Fort Lee in part because U.S. authorities had shifted visa processing abroad over the weekend, and some flights with SIVs were re-routed to places such as Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

A sign marks one of the entrances of the U.S. Army base Fort Lee, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Petersburg, Virginia. Afghan refugees who have been prescreened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been taken to Fort Lee and other temporary reception centers. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A sign marks one of the entrances of the U.S. Army base Fort Lee, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Petersburg, Virginia. Afghan refugees who have been prescreened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been taken to Fort Lee and other temporary reception centers. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

But as of Wednesday evening, the refugee agencies said they were told flights are expected to resume at Fort Lee by the weekend. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington told RNS that seven of their staff members — namely, immigration attorneys with their Newcomer Network program — stand ready to assist arrivals at Fort Lee with visa applications.

The refugee agencies are also on alert for refugees who may be landing in other countries: Some fleeing Kabul may have a “priority 2” or “P2” designation, which allows Afghans who worked for U.S. groups in various capacities to apply for refugee status in the U.S. But they can only apply if they find a way out of Afghanistan first, and the process often takes at least a year.

RELATED: Refugee aid groups criticize Biden for stumbles in evacuating ‘desperate’ Afghans

A spokesperson for LIRS said it’s possible some vulnerable Afghans are being taken to Kosovo, Albania and Uganda, which have all publicly offered to accept, temporarily, Afghans bound for the U.S. Reports also indicate evacuation flights are landing at an air base near Doha, Qatar, where people are being processed. As of Friday morning, a CBS news foreign affairs correspondent reported the base is now “at capacity” and may constitute a “developing humanitarian crisis.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has announced plans to make Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin available as part of an effort “to provide temporary housing, sustainment, and support inside the United States for up to 22,000 Afghan Special Immigration Visa applicants, their families and other at-risk individuals.”

A USCCB official confirmed to RNS they have been asked to lend support at these other forts as well. Other religious agencies said plans remain in flux.

After years of record-low refugee admissions and resettlement agencies reduced to skeletal staffs, the faith-based groups are now potentially facing numbers they haven’t seen in years packed into the span of a month or less.

“For many of us, this will be the most significant mission of our careers,” Vignarajah told RNS this week.

In a Wednesday night Zoom call to coordinate Fort Lee volunteers, a representative for a secular refugee resettlement group, the International Rescue Committee, said her group believes “the last flights out of Kabul are at the end of August” and stressed the need for more volunteers.

“I do know that we are going to need a lot of people,” the representative said.

RELATED: How to help Afghans arriving in the US after fleeing the Taliban

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