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Afghans Already In Virginia Play Big Role In Latest Resettlement Effort

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
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Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Tens of thousands of people came to the US, fleeing Afghanistan after the American military’s withdrawal hastened a collapse of the Afghan government. Among the refugees are Special Immigrant Visa holders who assisted the military and their families.

Those working to resettle these Afghans and other refugees put a part of themselves into the effort. 

Najib Naseri works for CommonwealthCatholic Charities which helps resettle people fleeing their homes. "When these people come,they're coming with zero baggage. Nothing," he says.

He has a cart full of packages for Afghans who have fled their country in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. "So we can open one of them to see what is inside, he says, using a key to cut the tape.

Virginia has a special place in the resettlement efforts. The state already has one of the largest communities of resettled Afghans. They and others have donated money, their time, or household items like the ones in the box Naseri is opening.  "Very useful! Bowls, cups, everything. A set for a family."

In late August, thousands of Afghans arrived at Virginia military bases. Naseri was there as well "So I was the first one deployed from Commonwealth Catholic Charities, with another coworker to Fort Lee to help with 10 large buses to pick up the first group of evacuees and then bring them to Fort Lee. I was there for two weeks," Naseri remembers.

As Naseri and other Afghans around Virginia were helping these people, they were also processing what was going on in Afghanistan. "The people in the community is sad because of their family. Also, they step up, they put things together to help these refugees that come."

Naseri’s family came to the U.S. at the same time there was a rush at the airport. They waited ten hours to get on the plane and then traveled for even longer. It was exhausting, for them and the thousands of others that came.  "Many of them feel this, you know, sickness situation that their body hurts," Naseri says. "They have headache. Maybe some of them is dehydrated. Who knows?"

After more days of medical checks and paperwork, these families entered the U.S. As he was opening boxes, a family arrived to look for housing. COVID-19 has caused a housing crunch but Naseri got the family into an apartment.  "Right now they are happy. They are in a good situation," he says. "We are working to receive their documentation, like social security card, ID cards, for them to be able to start a job maybe after a month or two."

Resettlement requires work like this all the time, but the evacuation from Afghanistan meant many more people were coming in a smaller window. Fewer refugee admissions during the Trump Administration meant that many resettlement agencies had to cut staff. 

"You know, our board of directors and our community support has just been terrific and making sure that we were able to kind of weather the reduction in arrivals over the last three or four years," says Jay Brown, CEO of Commonwealth Catholic Charities. He says they did not have to discontinue services in the regions the organization has served. "We have recently surged our own force to make sure that we're in a position to receive individuals who are coming."

Still many SIVs are still stuck and families have been contacting members of Congress for help. Representative Donald McEachin, who represents the Richmond area, said in a statement he  was working to prioritize cases brought by constituents.

Naseri is helping people here in the US, but he’s still worried he can’t help family still in Afghanistan.  "I can't do nothing for my family members. Two of my brothers, as I mentioned, they were working with the US embassy program until the 30th of August. And they were left behind. They are at home. So like them there's many others, like me, worrying about their family members."

About 50,000 Afghan refugees are slated to come to the US. Virginia is expected to take 1200. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.