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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen8:08 amSep 11, 20210

Evacuated “with just the clothes on their backs,” Afghans turn to aid agencies to rebuild their lives

Donations have flooded Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service headquarters in Baltimore, whose CEO says the refugees receive only limited U.S. government support

Above: Staffer Timothy Young looks through donations for Afghan refugees at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service national headquarters in Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

There’s a mountain of boxes of kitchen items in the lobby: new dinner plates, bowls and silverware. A spatula protrudes from one box. A yellow Le Creuset casserole dish sits in another.

Down coats, ladies shoes, packs of diapers and other personal items fill a storage room. And a long conference table is laden with blankets, sheets, quilts and brightly colored children’s bedding.

Donations for Afghan evacuees have been flooding into Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) national headquarters in Baltimore, which just wrapped up a two-week donation drive.

The public was so generous, including one person who drove four hours from Roanoke, Virginia to drop off donations, that “we had to say, ‘Please, stop,’” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, LIRS president and chief executive.

As staff and volunteers catalogue and distribute the bounty, Vignarajah wants to thank the community for their generosity and talk about the continuing need.

“This group of new Afghan arrivals is coming with just the clothes on their back or maybe just a little knapsack they were allowed to bring,” Vignarajah said in an interview with The Brew.

The families she met shortly after their arrival at the Army’s Fort Lee base in central Virginia, brought there as part of an emergency evacuation last month as the U.S. hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, were asking for everything from diapers and toothbrushes to laptops and sim cards.

But now, she said, the hard work of helping them rebuild their lives is just beginning.

It starts with the challenge of finding them a place to live.

“Imagine coming here as an Afghan with no nest egg, no credit history, no rental landlord references,” she said, noting that the Virginia-DC-Baltimore area where they have arrived is already struggling with high housing prices and bracing, amid the pandemic, for a wave of evictions.

Donated bedding lines a hallway at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service headquarters in Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

Donated bedding lines a hallway at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service headquarters in Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

Limited Status

LIRS and other aid organizations point out that most of the 60,000 Afghan evacuees arrive not as “refugees,” but rather with “humanitarian parole” status.

Under a special 90-day program, they receive limited assistance and a one-time $1,250 stipend.

But they will not have the full range of medical, counseling and resettlement services available to immigrants who arrive through the traditional U.S. refugee program.

“That stipend is what they will have to put toward rent, toward food, toward medical expenses and it’s obviously a fraction of what is needed to start a new life, to find a new home in this region,” Vignarajah said.

Aid agencies are pushing Congress to appropriate funds to do more, but, in the meantime, trying to help while they can with basic necessities.

“We’re doing everything from finding them affordable housing to furnishing it with modest furniture to stocking the refrigerator with culturally familiar foods,” Vignarajah said. “These are very resilient people – they want jobs, they want to restart their lives – so we’re trying to help them with that as well.”

She said her organization has relationships with landlords, though some require six months of rent up-front. They will also make use of the housing assistance being offered by Air B&B and by individuals who have offered homes rent-free.

About a dozen families locally have been housed thanks to the line of credit that Air B&B donated.

How to Help

Vignarajah suggests a number of options for individuals or groups that want to help the evacuees.

On the LIRS website there’s a place to sign up to volunteer to provide many kinds of assistance: apartment set-up, airport pick-up, meal assistance, mentorship, tutoring, translating, etc.

In addition to making financial donations, people can also sign up to provide housing.

Vignarajah said the evacuees she’s met are feeling a mixture of relief to be here and fear for their family members back home in Afghanistan.

Because many that she has met have marketable skills as electricians, engineers and in other areas, she said she’s hoping they will be recognized as assets to their new communities.

“What we saw on TV – people so desperate to fly to freedom they climb onto airplanes and ultimately drop to their deaths – these are the kinds of people that have come here,” she said.

“These are the families that we are welcoming into our region. We need as much help as we can get to assist them.”

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