With community support, Afghan evacuees are making NH home

·4 min read

Jan. 23—Volunteers and donations have been flooding into agencies that are working to resettle Afghan evacuees in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but more help is always welcome, officials said last week.

Jeffrey Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute of New England, said he expects his organization will be resettling at least 500 Afghans this year in the two states.

The challenges of doing so amid the ongoing pandemic and skyrocketing housing costs are daunting, Thielman said during an online update on his agency's Afghan resettlement efforts. "Housing is our greatest challenge," he said, noting 70 Afghans are temporarily living in hotels.

Still, he said, "We have started to see many signs of hope. Families are getting needed medical attention and children are starting to enroll in school."

To date, IINE has resettled 427 Afghan evacuees, including 81 in Manchester and the rest through IINE offices in Boston and Lowell, Mass. The 59 families include 196 children under the age of 18, Thielman said.

Most of the evacuees have two-year visas, and one of IINE's tasks is to secure them more permanent status in the country, he said.

Alexandra Weber, senior vice president for advancement at IINE, said the agency also is advocating for bringing other Afghans to the United States to join relatives who are already here. "Afghanistan is really never far from the minds of our clients, and we are very concerned about what is happening in the country today," she said.

After Kabul fell, "We were inundated by requests for people left behind, or people who didn't get on an evacuation flight," said Chiara St. Pierre, IINE's managing attorney for immigration legal services.

Job searches

Weber said resettlement agencies are asking Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would make these families and individuals eligible for the same benefits as other refugees.

In the meantime, Weber said, Massachusetts has allocated $12 million to provide assistance for Afghan evacuees.

In the initial 90 days after Afghans arrive, Weber said, the agency provides cash assistance, food, clothing, help to secure housing, and enrollment in health care and school. IINE has hired staff who are conversant in Dari and Pashto to provide translation services and teach English-language classes.

The reality is that these families will be living below the poverty level, Weber said, so case managers work hard to find the newcomers jobs. "We hope that with our help and the help of other providers and community support, they will build themselves into a sustainable future for themselves and their families," she said.

Volunteers have been essential to welcoming these newcomers into communities, IINE officials said.

The Rev. Jarred Mercer, rector of St. Paul's Church in Newburyport, Mass., said his church has been housing two families, a total of 19 people, since December. Community members have provided furniture, clothing and financial assistance, and volunteer teachers are giving English lessons for parents and children every day. The kids are enrolled in school and are thriving, he said.

It's not only the Afghans who are benefitting from this effort, Mercer said. "People are just becoming more generous, better, more open people by being involved," he said.

House-hunting

Finding permanent housing for such large families remains the biggest challenge, he said.

Henry Harris, managing director of the Manchester IINE office, said securing affordable housing is difficult here as well.

Harris said his office has been "inundated" with offers of help for these arriving families.

Sometimes IINE asks would-be donors to hold onto furniture and other household items until a family has a permanent apartment lined up, Weber said. "We love people's generosity and never want to turn anything away," she said. "We sometimes have to figure out how to accommodate such generosity but we're happy to do that."

The agency typically has just a few hours' to a few days' notice that a family is arriving. "Even a week sometimes is not enough because we do not have apartments on standby," Weber said.

Harris said the Afghans are eager to find jobs to build their lives here. His office is working with local employers to help them fill vacant positions with these workers. "We're an aging workforce, and our new arrivals, our new Americans in our communities, are going to play a key role in keeping our economy moving in a positive direction," he said.

Thielman said the IINE team is "extremely dedicated," working nights and weekends to help these newcomers settle into their new homes here.

"We feel their pain, we're doing our best to respond to them, and I do think over time we're all going to see these folks contribute to our communities and give back," Thielman said. "They are grateful for what they're receiving."

For ways to help, visit iine.org.

swickham@unionleader.com