With refugees being evacuated from Afghanistan, readers have been contacting Good Faith Media wondering how individuals and houses of faith can help.
Refugee resettlement in the U.S. is a lengthy process, involving multiple government agencies who work with the relevant United Nations’ entities, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to vet individuals and families seeking to come to the U.S. to escape dangerous conditions in their home country.
Some Afghan refugees qualify for resettlement under a special immigrant visa (SIV) program that was launched in 2009.
The SIV is for Afghanis (as well as their spouses and/or unmarried children under 21) who were employed by the U.S. government in Afghanistan and/or served as a translator or interpreter for U.S. or official international security forces.
On July 30, the length of service required to qualify was reduced from two years to one, and an additional 8,000 SIV spots were approved.
As CNN explains, the SIV – like the general U.S. refugee resettlement program, which non-SIV-qualifying Afghanis could be eligible for – is a multi-step process that is time-consuming to complete. Most applicants wait months, and some years, to complete the process.
Afghanis who completed the SIV process prior to evacuation are brought to the U.S., with those arriving this summer initially being temporarily housed on military bases in Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin, CBS reports. Those whose applications are still in process have been taken to U.S. military sites in other nations.
How can people of faith and faith communities in the U.S. help Afghan refugees when they arrive?
What began in 2015 with a single home for refugees has since expanded to multiple Welcome House ministries across North Carolina, with a ministry launched in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2019.
Wyatt spoke with GFM CEO Mitch Randall on the phone yesterday to share his insights and suggestions for those inquiring about ways to help.
“My first go-to is, reach out to your local refugee agency and ask, ‘How may we help?’” Wyatt said. “We suggest you don’t go in saying, ‘Here is what we can do,’ because the agencies have a set plan that they are working from … so, I recommend you go in and say, ‘What do you need?’ and then you can talk about what you can do.”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) partners with U.S.-based entities who help with refugee resettlement. UNHCR’s website contains a list of government and NGO partners, including a link to state-level contacts in the U.S.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement also provides a resource for finding refugee resources and contacts in your state, with links to contacts organized by city.
A list of resources has been posted to the Welcome House website, with links to relevant articles, webinars and refugee agencies.
Wyatt has been encouraged by the number of churches and individuals reaching out to offer housing options for the Welcome House network.
“It’s been amazing how many pastors have called us, or written … to say, ‘We’ve got a missionary residence or unused parsonage – how can we increase the bandwidth of Welcome House Raleigh?’ he said. “In the past 10 days, we jumped from 15 houses in our network to 21.”
“This is the thing that inspires me to keep going,” Wyatt said. “I’m exhausted, but I keep going every hour because people are donating, but they aren’t just saying, ‘Here’s $100; try to help people.’ They are saying, ‘I have a guest room, I have an in-law suite, I have an apartment – Can I offer it? Can you use it?’ That’s taking Jesus’ words, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me into your house’ quite literally. … That’s incredible.”
While emphasizing that the focus is rightly on Afghanistan, Wyatt encouraged people of faith not to neglect attention on the other U.S. refugee resettlement processes.
“The normal … refugee resettlement process is ramping up anyway, because the Biden administration has reset the number at a more humane number – that’s 65,000 for 2021,” with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Wyatt explained. “Oct. 1 starts the new fiscal year for refugee resettlement, and [Biden] has already talked about that number being 125,000, so that, in and of itself, is a ramping back up of resettlement.”
U.S. refugee resettlement quotes are established by the executive branch for each fiscal year. The 2016 annual quota of 85,000 dropped to 50,000 in 2017 to 45,000 in 2018 to 30,000 in 2019 and to 18,000 in 2020, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Wyatt is affirming of these higher quotas, but he explained that the significant increase is further taxing the resettlement system.
“In a normal [resettlement] cycle, an agency would take a contract from the U.S. government for a number of people in a city area like Raleigh, and then set about doing all of the things they do to help the families become self-sufficient,” he said.
Typically, there is a two-week notice that the agency is given to find housing so the family can move straight in upon arrival, Wyatt explained. The advance notice is now a single day, which has presented an overwhelming task for local agencies.
Despite these challenges, Wyatt feels the circumstances offer “a shining moment” for people of faith. If the faith community across the U.S. will mobilize to offer tangible, practical help to the state and local agencies working to help refugees across the U.S., then we’ll look back on this time as “one of our finest hours.”
For those who want to help, Wyatt suggested physically getting involved and/or offering unused or underutilized assets like housing before simply writing a check. While these avenues aren’t mutually exclusive, human capital and housing options are as essential as donations.
“Mission is about personally saying, ‘Here I am; send me,’” he said. “And this kind of thing, because it is localized, enables people to be on cross-cultural mission and witness from their home. They don’t have to get on a plane to do it somewhere else for a week; they can love their neighbors right there, and they can do that [over an] extended time.”
The total number of Afghan refugees likely to arrive in the U.S. via SIV or the general refugee pathways is uncertain, but Wyatt said one agency told him they are being asked to settle refugees who will arrive without work authorization.
“So, that means someone is basically without any resources,” he explained. “So, what has to happen is for the faith-based community and civic groups and nonprofits … to step into the gap to give the government time to get their head around what they’re asking these agencies to do with one day’s notice.”
The next six months will be crucial. Having houses of faith provide temporary housing and other support via state and local agencies can “offset this crisis of funding and resource support” by giving the government “transitional time” to figure out how to help the thousands of refugees who are likely to be arriving.
“This is what the end of a war looks like,” Wyatt said, emphasizing that the nation has a moral responsibility to help refugees.
“And as a Christian, I absolutely take seriously what God has said about loving [God] and loving my neighbor, loving the stranger, taking people in,” he said. “To me, that is the core, practical piece of my faith. … This is just the right thing for Christians to do.”