Ken Wachsberger, special to the WJN
The calamitous withdrawal of U.S. troops after twenty years in Afghanistan provoked a frenzied flight of refugees from the Taliban-ruled country. Now, the United States is gearing up to accept an influx of over 90,000 Afghan refugees in the next 12 months.
Michigan alone has agreed to take in up to 1,300, halting and sharply reversing the downward plunge of refugee resettlement during the Trump years. Major resettlement services leading the statewide effort include St. Vincent’s Catholic Charities Refugee Services (300 refugees in the Lansing area), Bethany Christian Services (250 in the Grand Rapids area), and Samaritas (350 in west Michigan and metro Detroit).
Resettlement in Washtenaw County
In Washtenaw County, Jewish Family Services is leading the local drive to settle up to 300 Afghans. Three Afghan cases have already been resettled and another 20 cases are in the pipeline, according to Shrina Eadeh, Director of Resettlement at JFS. More are being added weekly. Most will arrive in the next few months. “Case” is a generic term that can refer to one individual or a family.
Eadah says, “We have been notified that the majority of Afghans on the bases who have been vetted will leave the bases mid-October. So, we will soon see a larger number arrive in our community.”
To accommodate them, “We have been busy finding housing, seeking community support in the form of donations both funds and in-kind, and speaking with our local partners, like our schools and medical clinics, to ensure we are all aware of what we will need to do and can obtain the resources we need.”
Housing is the recurring challenge that dominates Eadeh’s concerns. “There are a lot of misconceptions that landlords and rental management companies have about renting to refugees. However, with our incredible employment and post-resettlement team, we work hard to ensure everyone we place in housing gets on their feet quickly and can meet their rental obligations with our support.”
Refugees Face (Mostly) Welcoming Climate
Eadeh praises the local social and political climate that facilitates the task. “We are not able to do the work we do without the support of our community. We work with local congregations, social service agencies, volunteers, our county and city officials, property management companies, schools, public benefits offices, medical clinics, and so many more.”
In particular, she thanks the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, United Way of Washtenaw County, and the Song Foundation for the special grants they provided to support JFS’s resettlement efforts.
“Aside from what happened on the UM campus and a few disturbing phone calls and emails from individuals not in support of the work we do, our community has been overwhelmingly supportive, and we are so grateful for them.”
At the University of Michigan, stickers saying “Afghan Refugee Hunting Permit” and sporting the logo of the white terrorist group the Proud Boys were recently discovered scattered around UM’s West Hall.
She lauds the help the various resettlement agencies in Michigan have received from state and local government. “The State of Michigan has spoken with us about resources we may need and also has advocated for us on a higher level for those resources. Our local government agencies are also reaching out to us in consideration of how they can be supportive of our work. We very much appreciate all of their efforts.”
Talking Hard Dollars
JFS’s approach to resettlement is based on their holistic service model, “which means a ‘one-stop shop’: mental health services (including translation/interpreting), transportation, nutrition, ESL, volunteer engagement and management in support of refugees, and a wide range of economic empowerment and employment services. By providing wrap-around services, we enable refugees to obtain employment quickly, so they can be more independent and meet their financial obligations. We also do our best to help them feel truly supported during this incredibly daunting transition. The vast majority of support services are not covered by resettlement funds, but are absolutely critical to the success of resettlement work.”
The effort to raise necessary funds is jumpstarted by the one-time payment of $1,225 each refugee is given from federal resettlement funds to get them through their first 90 days in this country. The funds are used, Eadeh explains, “to pay for rent and utilities, and, if there is anything left, we pay for needed household or personal care items.”
However, seldom is anything left. “We try to maximize these funds by using donations we receive to help obtain any other items people need.”
How Can You Help Locally?
More donations are needed.
To begin, if you own rental property or know anyone who does, “We are in desperate need of housing that can be rented to the Afghans and refugees we resettle and funds to support all of the services we provide for resettlement: specialty food pantry, transportation, behavioral health, and more.”
She is grateful to the volunteers who have reached out and want to begin helping right away, and asks for their patience. “Similar to 2016, when we received a record number of Syrian refugees, we will need hundreds of volunteers. However, it takes time to create this system and, as we face arrival numbers that we’ve never seen before, we know we’ll need a lot of help. We just need our volunteers to give us a moment to come up with the best process for their engagement. Our goal is to ensure that their experience is meaningful and rewarding.”
She urges patience with much-needed in-kind contributions as well. “We have to be strategic in what items we need right now and how we can best utilize our local partners, such as thrift shops, Salvation Army, and Kiwanis. Management and storage of in-kind donations is a costly and time-consuming operation. We have to be mindful and strategic in selecting the items we actually need and have the ability to store.”
Always near the top of the list are cleaning supplies, personal care items, and household items, as well as gift cards from, for instance, Visa, Meijer, Kroger, and Target.
For more information and updates about what JFS is doing and how you can help, you can follow them on Facebook and Instagram, subscribe to their newsletter, or read their website at https://jfsannarbor.org/resettlement-integration-services/.
Ken Wachsberger is an author, editor, and book coach. His latest book is “You Have the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You.“