Afghan evacuees to start arriving in Maine this week


Afghan evacuees will begin arriving in Maine on Friday and dozens of organizations are scrambling to accommodate them with limited government resources and a shortage of affordable housing.

Catholic Charities Maine is leading the effort as the state-appointed administrator of the new Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, which was created by the federal government following the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan.

Through this program, Catholic Charities has been authorized to resettle 67 to 100 Afghans in Maine who technically do not have refugee status but are considered to be on immigration parole, said Hannah DeAngelis, director of services for human beings. refugee and immigration faith-based agency.

They are among 57,000 immigration parolees who have successfully left Afghanistan and are at eight military bases in the United States awaiting relocation. They will arrive with limited funding from the federal government that is expected to last for 90 days, DeAngelis said.

Nearly 130,000 people were airlifted from Afghanistan in the final days of the evacuation, including about 70,000 who had “special immigrant visas” because they worked with US forces. Some of them are also waiting at military bases and destined for Maine, and some Afghan Mainers are trying to bring family members here as humanitarian parolees.

It’s unclear exactly when and how many Afghans might come to Maine, but agencies and people preparing for their arrival are eager to help U.S. allies who have been displaced in an ongoing international crisis. For years.

“Our team is really excited to do our part,” said DeAngelis. “I have so much confidence in our communities to be able to provide enveloping services. I think the Mainers are ready to do it.

The 67 to 100 Afghans who will be supported by Catholic Charities could arrive in Maine anytime between Oct. 1 and March 30, 2022, DeAngelis said. This is the largest number of newcomers the agency has resettled since welcoming 323 refugees in the fiscal year that ended in September 2018.

Families evacuated from Afghanistan wait to board a bus after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on August 27. Jose Luis Magana / Associated press

Catholic Charities Maine has resettled fewer refugees in recent years, due to restrictions imposed by the Trump administration and challenges posed more recently by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Maine hosted 623 refugees in 2016-17, DeAngelis said. By 2017-18, that number had fallen to 66 and has yet to rebound.

Catholic Charities Maine resettled 37 refugees during the fiscal year ending this month, DeAngelis said. All of them have arrived in the past six months, and they have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq and Syria.

Refugee arrivals have fallen to around 10,000 nationwide this year, DeAngelis said, despite the Biden administration raising the cap from 15,000 to 62,500 this year and pledging to raise the cap. to 125,000 next year.

Afghans currently waiting at military bases are treated under immigration programs; undergo medical examinations and vaccinations; and receive other temporary aid, according to officials at the US State Department.

Gov. Janet Mills’s office announced in August that Maine was ready to welcome Afghans fleeing their homeland, but it was more of a declaration of will than an assessment of the state’s readiness. .

Greater Portland, Lewiston, Biddeford and Augusta are among the communities preparing to welcome Afghan families as they already have social services, schools offering multilingual programs, vocational training, public transportation and other services. in place to help immigrants. Maine is home to around 500 American Afghans, 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 as affordable housing is scarce in many more urban communities across the country. State.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

Each person arriving through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program will receive $ 900 to cover accommodation, 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 the Afghan evacuees, but most of them are not close to the resources immigrants need to be successful in a whole new community and culture.

“Housing will determine the success of our response,” Chitam said. “A number of Afghans who come here speak English and are able to work, but there is still a cultural adjustment to be made. “

After three months, Afghans arriving under the new placement and assistance program will not receive any federal financial assistance available to immigrants who have formal refugee status. They will be able to apply for asylum shortly after arriving 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 border of the United States in recent years and often have to wait several months to obtain legal resident status and green cards.

And there are already around 300 asylum seekers staying in hotels around Greater Portland who have come to Maine this summer and are awaiting permanent housing placement because affordable apartments are so scarce, Chitam said. Hotel and apartment rental costs are paid through general assistance programs funded by state and municipal governments.

Dozens of agencies are pooling resources to prepare for Afghan newcomers, including the Maine State Housing Authority, which is seeking permission to use federal pandemic relief funds to provide rent assistance to Afghan families, Chitam said.

“Things are falling into place,” said Nasir Shir, an Afghan community leader in Maine. “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 keep available accommodations indefinitely, so unfortunately many will end up staying in hotels. “

Shir, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, plans to host a friend and former colleague from Afghanistan who is waiting at a military base in the United States and has a special immigrant visa.

Shir said many Mainers have reached out to provide accommodation, gift cards, furniture and other support for planned Afghan arrivals. Some have even offered to cover the $ 575 per person fee that family members have to pay when applying for compassionate release for relatives still hoping to flee Afghanistan.

“It’s one of those times where you say, ‘I’m glad to live in Maine,’ Shir said.

The Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta is organizing volunteers to provide social support to every Afghan family who might settle in the state capital.

Launched in 2017, the group worked with Syrian and Iraqi refugees who moved to Augusta, with three or four local families assigned to each immigrant family. They help newcomers register their children for school or join the YMCA, share meals and invite them to public events, take them apple picking or an agricultural fair, answer questions and put them in contact with community resources.

“These families become the refugee welcoming committee and help build relationships between new immigrants and the wider community,” said Chris Myers Asch, Executive Director.

The Greater Portland Immigrant Reception Center in Portland will focus on teaching English to arriving Afghans, offering them free access for one year to the centre’s online language education program, said Reza Jalali, Executive Director.

Immigrants can access the program statewide as long as they have a digital device, and the center will loan tablets to those without a cell phone or access to a laptop or personal computer. The curriculum can be tailored to teach work-related language skills in specific areas, such as medical or customer service. The center can also help them apply for a work permit and seek business financing.

“Maine is once again proving to be a welcoming place for the displaced around the world,” Jalali said.

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