Pa. has long been a home for refugees. Will Afghans be the next to find shelter here?

Advocates and lawmakers said this week that Pennsylvania could — and should — continue that tradition as a safe haven for Afghans.

By: - August 17, 2021 1:19 pm

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 10 : Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Five years ago, Noorulhaq Fazly decided to leave Afghanistan.

Married and the father of two, Fazly had worked as a legal assistant in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, aiding efforts to expand human rights in the country. 

He managed to get a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, that the U.S. authorized for Afghans who helped administer the country and fight the Taliban, from translators to drivers and  embassy staff.

At the time, many of Fazly’s friends and family instead decided to stick it out, and hope for the best in the country.

Now, as the Taliban has rapidly taken over the central Asian nation — marking an abrupt end to America’s two-decade-long occupation of the country since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks  — Fazly said he’s hearing pleas for help from back home. 

“The situation is changing so rapidly. So now families back home, friends, everyone thinks they all qualify for the program or indirectly for another visa they are trying to get and get out of country,” Fazly said Tuesday on a press call.

He now works for the Jewish Family and Community Services, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit which organized the call, finding employment for refugees.

With the fall of Kabul over the weekend, JFCS as well as refugee groups across the state and country are now preparing for an unknown number of people fleeing Afghanistan to escape potential retribution at the hands of the Taliban, an ultraconservative Islamist movement that ran the country under strict religious law in the 1990s.

Pennsylvania has a long history of accepting refugees, from Anabaptists fleeing religious persecution in the 1700s to Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s to today. Lancaster is known as the country’s “refugee capital” due to the large share off its population that has left their conflict-riven home countries.

Looking to the future, advocates and lawmakers said this week that Pennsylvania could — and should — continue that tradition as a safe haven for Afghans.

“Pennsylvania could make it clear they are excited to welcome more Afghans to attract them to the state, so that’s not an issue as much as it is something that we urge lawmakers to do,” Christopher Plummer, spokesperson for the Lancaster chapter of Christian World Services, a faith-based, non-governmental organization that resettles migrants, said.

From 2009 until 2019, the commonwealth  accepted 26,000 refugees, according to state data. But matching federal trends, that number has declined in the past year.

In an email, Wolf administration spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said officials had  “not spoken with the Biden administration about the possibility of resettlement of potential refugees, but we are monitoring this evolving situation in the event that support is needed.”

Among the federal government’s top priorities right now is to evacuate the estimated 88,000 Afghans who directly aided American military forces. Efforts to reallocate these individuals have been slow, according to the Washington Post.

These migrants are not automatically assigned a sponsor organization and location but rather have a choice, Plummer noted. They can either choose to settle near someone they know, or have the government or a third party help them find a new home.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are two of 25 cities that the federal government will resettle Afghan special visa holders to, according to the U.S. State Department. 

In its press call, the JFCS in Pittsburgh said they had been informed of the “imminent arrival” of two visa holders in recent days.

Ivonne Smith-Tapia, the nonprofit’s refugee and immigrant services head, said JFCS will welcome each family at the airport, and then transport them to a furnished home. 

They will also help migrants’ families access government resources, find jobs, and enroll in school.

As such, Smith-Tapia encouraged Pittsburghers to donate their time, housing, or money to the cause to create a home for migrants.

“We know welcoming refugees isn’t only our responsibility, it’s the work of a community. When we work together, it is more successful,” she said.

But all of this requires getting Afghans, who do or not hold visas, out of the country.

Fox News reported over the weekend that the Biden administration was preparing to temporarily relocate about 30,000 of the special visa holders to two U.S. military installations in Wisconsin and Texas.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.,  said that these individuals, as well as America’s “allies and defenders of democracy in Afghanistan are in grave danger.”

“This is not the time for the usual Washington finger pointing and pontificating; our immediate priority must be to safely evacuate the Americans, women leaders, activists and human rights defenders who are being targeted by the Taliban,” Casey said.

There are even fewer plans for what to do with tens of thousands more individuals, such as those who worked for U.S.-funded programs, and Afghan journalists employed by U.S. outlets.

U.S. Department of State officials highlighted a program to admit such individuals, based on employer referrals, in a press briefing earlier this month.

The officials said that they expected Afghans who wanted to seek refuge in America to only apply once they had left the country.

And even less accounted for are those who did not work with the Americans, but worry their lives could be restricted but still wish to flee the Taliban.

In recent days, the group has promised to honor women’s rights within the framework of Islamic law, and to not seek revenge against its enemies, according to the Associated Press.

But this change was preceded by a “very aggressive assassination campaign, which is basically targeting the elites and the educated classes, the people and the women — the people who have benefited most and the people who have really stepped to the fore since 9/11,” foreign correspondent and author Dexter Filkins said in a March interview with WHYY-FM in Philadelphia.

America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda, who orchestrated the attacks, used Afghanistan as a base. 

During America’s 20-year occupation of the country, more than 241,000 people died, according to an accounting by Brown University. That includes more than 2,200 American soldiers. 

The federal government also spent tens of billions of dollars to arm the Afghan military and build a modern, Western-style democracy, all to seemingly no avail.

For the past year, in a plan signed by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 and continued under his replacement, President Joe Biden, America has been withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. 

Under the terms, America and the Taliban agreed to a truce. In return, America agreed to remove its troops from the country within 14 months.

With the American military withdrawal almost over, the Taliban has come roaring back, retaking most of the country they had been driven out of in 2001 after the American post-9/11 invasion.

In an address Monday afternoon, Biden said he stood by his decision.

“After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was a never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” he said. 

As for the limited evacuation plans for Afghan nationals, Biden said that the many did not want to leave, and that the Afghan government did not want to appear like it was losing control of the country.

Overall, Biden admitted, “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Thousands of American and coalition individuals will also need to be evacuated, according to Biden.

As for Afghans, they “were never expecting this situation to happen ever,” Pittsburgh’s Fazly said. “It happened so quick. It’s a shock, so they don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Since October 2020, when the data’s reporting year starts, until this June, 195 refugees from 19 different countries have settled in Pennsylvania, according to state numbers. Of those, 30 were from Afghanistan.

The total number of refugees is just under half of the number of refugees who had resettled in Pennsylvania from Oct. 2019 to June 2020 — even with a full stop in resettlements in April amid the pandemic,

This low number follows from the small number of federal refugee admissions under Biden. 

Monthly refugee totals have increased recently, and Biden did raise the refugee cap following criticism from human rights groups.

But as of July 31, the country has only admitted 6,246 people, according to federal data. With just two months left in the reporting period, that’s about half as many admissions as the record low set in the 2019-20 year under Trump.

The state Department of Human Services lists Pennsylvania organizations that help relocate refugees here.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.