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Michigan braces for hundreds of Afghan refugees: ‘It’s our turn to help’

Afghan refugees
Michigan social service agencies are expecting several hundred Afghan refugees. (Alexandros Michailidis /

Oct. 1: How Michigan State University helped 77 Afghans escape the Taliban

Michigan is bracing for the arrival of hundreds of Afghan refugees, and one resettlement official cautioned their transition to a new life will not come easy.

“We know that a lot of these folks have suffered significant trauma,” said Susan Kragt of Bethany Christian Services, a Grand Rapids-based adoption and resettlement agency.

“We have experience with victims of trauma and torture. We have a clinical team that’s ready to serve. We just want to get them to a safe place as soon as possible.”


But just days after nightmarish scenes of thousands of Afghans desperate to reach aircraft leaving their country, Kragt echoed a sentiment familiar to other resettlement officials ─ communities around the state are eager to help.

“We are overwhelmed with support at this point. We have people who want to donate furniture, clothes, food, hygiene products, just welcome kits in general.

“We had several offers to provide housing. This includes people who have volunteered to host families in their homes and those who have rental or vacation properties.”

The U.S. State Department is in the process of determining where refugees will resettle, based on existing populations of Afghans and support systems.

Kragt said Bethany is preparing to resettle about 150 Afghans in west Michigan. That’s on top of an estimated 400 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Bethany expects to receive over the coming year.

At Detroit-based Samaritas, officials are preparing to resettle at least a few hundred Afghans, most likely to be concentrated in southeast Michigan and the greater Grand Rapids area.

Kelli Dobner of Samaritas said the nonprofit resettlement and social service agency has been flooded with offers of help.

“I would say it’s unusual when there are hot topics like this, that are in the news, that I have ever seen it be so overwhelmingly positive for people wanting to help in whatever way they can,” Dobner said. “They are saying, ‘It’s our turn to help as humans.’”

Dobner said community support will be vital, since Samaritas was already expecting to resettle about a thousand refugees from other nations over the coming year before the crisis in Afghanistan.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge to take care of the refugees from Afghanistan and the other refugees as well.”

All told, more than 120,000 people have been airlifted from Afghanistan since last month’s collapse of the Afghan government. The tally includes more than 5,000 Americans, U.S. allies and tens of thousands of Afghan refugees.

The refugees include those who have applied for a humanitarian visa known as a special immigrant visa, tailored for those who acted as translators for U.S. military forces or otherwise aided its war effort. Afghans who lack valid immigration status when they arrive in the United States could be granted “humanitarian parole” while their application for permanent visa is vetted.

But even with the impending arrival of Afghan refugees, the Afghan immigrant population would still be just a sliver of the American immigrant pie.

According to the George Mason University Institute for Immigration Research, there were 80,200 U.S. Afghan immigrants in 2017, less than 1 percent of the total immigrant population. The largest concentrations of Afghans are in California and Virginia, likely destinations for many of the Afghan refugees.

According to a five-year U.S. census survey, there were less than a thousand Michigan residents who claimed Afghan ancestry in 2019. That’s dwarfed by Michigan’s Arab population, which the census pegs at 150,000 but others estimate at as much as 500,000.

Officials at Bethany Christian say they have settled about a hundred Afghan refugees in west Michigan in recent years. The recent news from Afghanistan has traumatized many.

Bethany’s Kristine Van Noord told Michigan Radio those many of those refugees “have gone through horrific amounts of torture at the hands of the Taliban. And they now live in fear that that is going to be their family’s reality.”

There are widespread reports that many of the refugees fled the country with nothing more than the clothes they wore, some of the children with no shoes. Nonetheless, newly arrived adult refugees are expected to become self-sufficient in a matter of months.

Shortly before the arrival of the refugees, resettlement agencies arrange for their housing, which includes basic furnishings, appliances and clothing. Resettlement agencies are funded a one-time sum of $2,275 per person from the State Department to help refugees in their first 90 days.

Bethany is coordinating co-sponsorship programs that pair a refugee family with a church or community group to help them connect with the community and local resources. For the incoming Afghans, Bethany is requiring a one-year sponsorship commitment.

Some of the Afghans entering the United States will likely land as asylum seekers, a complex process involving multiple government agencies that can take years to resolve.

Detroit-based Freedom House provides housing, counseling and legal help for asylum seekers, while it claims that 90 percent of its past clients have been granted asylum. To do so, refugees must prove they cannot safely return to their home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

Deb Drennan
Detroit Freedom House CEO Deb Drennan said application for refugee asylum is a “long and grueling process.” (Courtesy photo)

In the case of Afghan asylum seekers, Freedom House CEO Deborah Drennan said fears may well be rooted in torture, threats of sexual assault or the killing of family members. As much as is feasible, these events must be documented in detail.

“This is the worst story of your life, and you have to tell every detail. It is a long and grueling process,” she said.

In the Lansing area, a group of military veterans is banding together to raise money to support Afghan refugees expected in that region. Eight-year Marine veteran Noah Smith told Bridge Michigan they share a strong sense of duty to come to their aid.

“Anyone in the military understands the value of citizens of countries where we are deployed and their willingness to help the troops,” Smith said.

“I feel like we have a moral obligation to help the people who helped us. Let’s help these folks who had to flee their country start a new life.”

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