Sep. 27—Afghan evacuees will begin arriving in Maine as soon as Friday and dozens of organizations are scrambling to welcome them with limited government resources and a shortage of affordable housing.
Catholic Charities Maine is leading the effort as the state's designated administrator of the new Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, which was created by the federal government in the wake of the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Through that program, Catholic Charities has been approved to resettle 67 to 100 Afghans in Maine who technically lack refugee status but are considered immigration parolees, said Hannah DeAngelis, director of refugee and immigration services at the faith-based agency.
They are among 57,000 immigration parolees who made it out of Afghanistan and are on eight military bases in the United States awaiting resettlement. They will arrive with limited funding from the federal government that is meant to last 90 days, DeAngelis said.
Nearly 130,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan in the final days of the evacuation, including about 70,000 who have "special immigrant visas" because they worked with U.S. forces. Some of them are also waiting on military bases and destined for Maine, and some Afghan Mainers are working to bring family members here as humanitarian parolees.
Exactly when and how many Afghans may be coming to Maine is unclear, but the agencies and individuals preparing for their arrival are eager to help U.S. allies who have been displaced in a yearslong international crisis.
"Our team is really excited to do our part," DeAngelis said. "I have so much faith in our communities to be able to provide wrap-around services. I think Mainers are ready to do it."
The 67 to 100 Afghans who will be in Catholic Charities' care could arrive in Maine anytime between Oct. 1 and March 30, 2022, DeAngelis said. It's the largest number of newcomers that the agency has resettled since it welcomed 323 refugees in the fiscal year that ended in September 2018.
Catholic Charities Maine has resettled fewer refugees in recent years, because of restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, and because of challenges brought more recently by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Maine received 623 refugees in 2016-17, DeAngelis said. By 2017-18 that number had fallen to 66 and it has yet to rebound.
Catholic Charities Maine has resettled 37 refugees in the fiscal year ending this month, DeAngelis said. All have arrived in the last six months, and they have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq and Syria.
Refugee arrivals are down nationwide to about 10,000 this year, DeAngelis said, despite the Biden administration raising the cap from 15,000 to 62,500 this year, and pledging to increase the cap to 125,000 next year.
Afghans currently waiting on military bases are being processed through immigration programs; undergoing medical screenings and vaccinations; and receiving other temporary assistance, according to U.S. State Department officials.
Gov. Janet Mills' office announced in August that Maine was prepared to welcome Afghans fleeing their homeland, but it was more a statement of willingness than an assessment of the state's readiness.
Greater Portland, Lewiston, Biddeford and Augusta are among the communities that are preparing to welcome Afghan families because they already have social services, schools with multilingual programs, job training, public transportation and other services in place to assist immigrants. Maine is home to about 500 Afghan Americans, clustered mostly around Portland.
But securing housing in advance for Afghans coming to Maine is proving to be the biggest challenge facing Catholic Charities and its partner agencies, especially because affordable housing is scarce in many of the state's more urban communities.
Each person arriving through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program will be given $900 to cover housing, food and other basic needs for 90 days, said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants' Rights Coalition.
Some Mainers have volunteered to open their homes and provide other assistance to Afghan evacuees, but most of them aren't near the resources immigrants need to succeed in a whole new community and culture.
"Housing is going to determine how successful our response is," Chitam said. "A number of Afghans coming here speak English and are able to work, but there is still a cultural adjustment to be made."
After three months, Afghans arriving through the new placement and assistance program will have none of the federal financial support that is available to immigrants who have official refugee status. They will be able to apply for asylum soon after they arrive in the United States and they will come with expedited work authorization papers, DeAngelis said.
However, in many ways they will be similar to asylum seekers who have migrated to Maine from the southern U.S. border in recent years and often must wait several months to gain legal resident status and green cards.
And there are already about 300 asylum seekers staying in hotels around Greater Portland who came to Maine this summer and are waiting for placement in permanent housing because affordable apartments are so scarce, Chitam said. The hotel and apartment rental fees are paid through General Assistance programs funded by the state and municipal governments.
Dozens of agencies are pooling resources to prepare for the new Afghan arrivals, including the Maine State Housing Authority, which is seeking permission to use federal pandemic relief funding to provide rental assistance to Afghan families, Chitam said.
"Things are coming together," said Nasir Shir, a leader of Maine's Afghan community. "Part of the problem is we don't know exactly when people are coming, so it's going to be a shock. And we can't hold available housing forever, so unfortunately many will wind up staying in hotels."
Shir, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, is making plans to take in a friend and former colleague from Afghanistan who is waiting on a military base in the United States and has a special immigrant visa.
Shir said many Mainers have reached out to offer housing, gift cards, furniture and other support to the anticipated Afghan arrivals. Some have even offered to cover the $575 per-person fee that family members must pay when applying for humanitarian parole for loved ones still hoping to flee Afghanistan.
"It's one of those times when you say, 'I'm glad I live in Maine,'" Shir said.
The Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta is organizing volunteers to provide social support for each Afghan family that may be settled in the state capital.
Started in 2017, the group has worked with Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have moved to Augusta, with three or four local families assigned to each family of immigrants. They help the newcomers enroll children in school or join the YMCA, share meals and invite them to public events, take them apple picking or to a country fair, answer questions and connect them with resources in the community.
"These families become the welcoming committee for refugees and help to build relationships between the new immigrants and the wider community," said Chris Myers Asch, executive director.
The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland will focus on teaching English to arriving Afghans, offering them free access for one year to the center's online language instruction program, said Reza Jalali, executive director.
Immigrants can access the program statewide as long as they have a digital device, and the center will lend tablets to those who don't have a cellphone or access to a laptop or personal computer. The program can be tailored to teach work-related language skills for specific fields, such as medical or customer service. The center also can help them apply for work permits and seek business financing.
"Maine is once again proving itself to be a welcoming place for the world's displaced people," Jalali said.