Resettlement agencies eye long-term needs as they welcome Afghan refugees to Nashville

·2 min read

Since September, Tennessee has welcomed 324 Afghan refugees or a little over half the total number of individuals expected to arrive.

By February, the Tennessee Office for Refugees expects more than 600 Afghan refugees to arrive in the state, with more than 80% of those individuals residing in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Smaller groups of arrivals are also settling into Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

Resettlement agencies should feel positive about their efforts to welcome more than 300 Afghan refugees in three months, said Louisa Saratora, refugee coordinator for the Tennessee Office for Refugees.

"The refugee program has seen lower numbers over several years, so some of that infrastructure is being rebuilt right now as we speak. Agencies are staffing up right now, as we speak," Saratora said.

"Seeing that response and then seeing it so quickly, and so comprehensively and how refugee serving agencies have really reached out to and welcomed community support," she added.

Dr. Gatluak Thach, president and CEO of the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, speaks at a press conference announcing the Welcoming Nashville Fund, which will help provide assistance to about 300 Afghan refugees that will soon become part of the Nashville community, on Oct. 13, 2021.
Dr. Gatluak Thach, president and CEO of the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, speaks at a press conference announcing the Welcoming Nashville Fund, which will help provide assistance to about 300 Afghan refugees that will soon become part of the Nashville community, on Oct. 13, 2021.

The Tennessee Office for Refugees is a branch of Catholic Charities in Nashville, serving as an intermediary between the federal government and local resettlement agencies. Unlike Tennessee, state government agencies elsewhere work with the federal government for refugee resettlement efforts.

For the Afghan refugee resettlement effort, the Tennessee Office for Refugees works with two nonprofits in Nashville, Catholic Charities and the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), and other nonprofits in Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

The need for local agencies to respond quickly has been a double-edged sword. The agencies have answered the call but the pace of the work is still an ongoing challenge.

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Agencies "have had to hire staff quickly and this is an intense, short time frame for resettlement," Saratora said. "Folks are working long hours and working hard to make sure that folks have the support that they need when they arrive."

At NICE, case workers have stepped up to the plate, but they continue to wrestle with logistics, said Max Rykov, the nonprofit's associate director of development.

"They (case workers) are working all the time to get people into housing, either apartments or a more temporary solution until we can find a long term lease for them," Rykov said. "But it’s difficult to find housing with two or three days notice in Nashville. It’s difficult to find on a three weeks notice in Nashville."

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Meanwhile, the agencies are thinking about long-term needs for arrivals, such as helping people secure asylum status, enroll in school, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, and receive mental health care to deal with past trauma.

"It’s that balance of being prepared and responsive when people arrive and also knowing that that integration process is going to take time," Saratora said.

There's just as much of a need to be "paying attention and supporting people as they move forward in that process, and seeing where there might be needs that we haven’t considered before."

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on Twitter @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee has welcomed more than 300 Afghan refugees, expects more than 600

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