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When 310 refugees from Afghanistan begin arriving in Connecticut in coming weeks, they will be assisted by a coalition of state agencies and nonprofit groups to help with the difficult transition to America.
Gov. Ned Lamont announced the public-private task force Friday that will provide a wide array of services for Afghan evacuees who will begin arriving as soon as next week.
The services include obtaining affordable housing, handling paperwork to smooth the path for placing the children into public schools, counseling, and job training so the adults can find employment.
Advocates are working to arrange individual apartments so that traumatized families can get back on their feet, rather than sharing housing with host families in Connecticut. The state departments of social services, public health, and children and families are all involved in the bipartisan effort, along with nonprofit refugee agencies in New Haven and Bridgeport.
“Some of these kids have been through hell and back on their way to the United States of America, but they’re here now, and they’re one of us — and we’re in it together,’' Lamont told reporters. “And we love them because we’re all God’s children. That’s what today is all about. They were there for us. We’re there for them.’'
Lamont stood on the state Capitol steps with 18 supporters who represented state departments and nonprofits who are gearing up to help the evacuees. As many as 1,000 evacuees could arrive in Connecticut over the next 12 months. Overall, 46 states are participating in the national effort.
“We’ve done this before,’' said Dr. Deidre S. Gifford, who is commissioner of the Department of Social Services and who has served as interim commissioner at the Department of Public Health. “Connecticut has muscle memory and collaborative relationships, refugee resettlement agencies and many, many community partners and advocates who have done this type of work before.’'
Lamont said he did not have a cost estimate for the overall effort, but he added that the state will be seeking federal reimbursement for its expenses.
Robert Fishman, executive director of the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, known as CIRC, said this week that the overall cost could eventually be $500,000 to $1 million statewide. But officials said they could not confirm Fishman’s estimate.
The 310 evacuees will have “humanitarian parole’' status, meaning that they can stay in the United States up to two years, officials said. They could then apply for an extension or re-parole. Parole has been used in the past for Iraqi interpreters in 2007, as well as after the Vietnam War and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, among others.
Afghan families seeking humanitarian parole are still required to pay a fee of $575 per person so that they can enter the United States. For large families, the fees can be prohibitive as a family of five, for example, would be required to pay more than $2,800.
Some members of Congress are seeking to eliminate the humanitarian parole application fee, while other agencies are trying to raise money from donors to cover the costs. Fishman said recently that his group had already raised more than $10,000 but needed more in order to cover the fees for as many refugees as possible.
Alex Plitsas, a task force member and U.S. Army veteran, said he is continuing to try help people out of the country. He estimated that there are 50,000 to 60,000 people who still want to leave, but the Taliban has the final say on departures. Working with veterans around the world, Plitsas said he assisted in an effort that evacuated 6,000 people, including 1,000 Americans, from Afghanistan.
Plitsas, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is working on the same effort as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to clear passage so that charter planes can fly out of the country’s fourth largest city, Mazar-e-Sharif. But the Taliban, which controls the airports, has said publicly that some of the potential passengers on those planes do not have the proper paperwork to leave the country.
“This is not a political issue,’' said Plitsas, who serves as chairman of the Republican Town Committee in Fairfield. “This is a moral one. And we have a solemn obligation to stand by those who stood by us for the last 20 years. These are people who gave up their livelihoods. They chose to stand alongside of us and stand up to a Taliban regime that was oppressive to them and to women and killed many people. We have a unique opportunity to help resettle a group of people who share our values who spent 20 years sacrificing alongside of us.’'
“It’s part of the warrior ethos we talk about,’' Plitsas said. “I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade. It’s part of our American identity. We don’t leave people behind. We’ll continue to work for as long as we’re able to until we get the last person out. It could be years at this rate, so strap in for the long haul.’'
Christopher Keating can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org