Of the 37,000 Afghans escaping Taliban control to the United States, roughly 415 will be relocated in Tennessee, according to the Associated Press. The vast majority of these migrants have yet to arrive, but local nonprofits who typically relocate those who’ve acquired a refugee status are having to modify their approach for the Afghan humanitarian crisis.
Chris Linthicum, Director of Resettlement Services at Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), manages families for the first 90 days of their arrival. Responsibilities include helping those relocated enroll their children in school, apply for government benefits, find housing, medical appointments, etc.
“These numbers, as far as for the Afghans, are honestly a guesstimate. We’re given this number, but we’re not guaranteed to get them.” Linthicum says.
According to Linthicum, the program NICE is developing for Afghans will be separate from their current program for refugees. Instead of being formally classified as ‘refugees,’ many Afghan allies will be considered parolees or an SIV (a special immigrant visa for those who’ve aided the U.S. military).
“What’s happened in this whole process of pulling out is some of them were in that process and it wasn’t completed, so they will enter as parolees and process as they get here,” Linthicum said.
Cases processed through the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, are assigned to different American affiliates, such as NICE.
“We have ‘walk-ins’ and people assigned to a case that we have to pick up,” Linthicum says.
Linthicum says that NICE does not receive the status of the people they are relocating, including the details on why they are leaving their home-country.
Linthicum emphasizes how the Afghan relocation process is still evolving, but currently the procedure includes aid for the first 90 days with housing, immigration documents, medical needs, employment eligibility, and transportation.
“It might be a wife and child rejoining someone who’s already here… and if they are rejoining family it’ll probably be easier because that family will take that responsibility on, and we will be there to guide them through immigration documents or basic core services,” Linthicum says.
Linthicum notes how those classified as parolees are not currently eligible for government assistance usually available to refugees, such as Family First cash assistance and food stamps.
“For those people, we’re trying to raise money to provide financial support through donations and volunteers. We’re trying to rapidly get those funds, because if they’re not eligible for food-stamps… food is the biggest expense for a family. We’re just trying to come up with all the solutions that we can, everyone’s looking a little different,” Linthicum says.
For Linthicum, he says an SIV family arrived a couple weeks ago alongside a few walk-ins.
“[The state department] told us that they were supposed to start processing people this month, and the program is supposed to run through the end of March. We haven’t gotten a breakdown like ‘you’re going to receive this many people this month.’ It’s a very fluid situation,” Linthicum says.
Linthicum notes how NICE’s fiscal year is the same as the federal government’s, meaning it ends in September. During this transition, there is usually a travel moratorium for roughly a week. This time overlaps when many Afghan allies are predicted to arrive, further derailing their typical relocation process.
Marina Peshterianu, Associate Director of Bridge Refugee Services based in Chattanooga and Knoxville, and has worked with Bridge in various positions for 20 years.
“The situation in Afghanistan has been a problem for many years,” Peshterianu says, “but we didn’t receive refugees from there until a couple of years ago.”
According to Peshterianu, often these Afghans came from Turkey, where they spent five to ten years before arrival.
In reference to the current situation, she says, “They are not refugees, we call them Afghan evacuees or allies… the immigration status isn’t clear at this point because they were airlifted and brought to military bases. Some of the people who were on the airplanes were American citizens, some were on special immigration visas, and some will be permanent residents, and some will be people still waiting for their status. But because of how quickly everything unveiled, we were not able to get their immigration status.”
Peshterianu says Bridge has not resettled anyone yet, and like Linthicum, notes how due to their inability to claim refugee status, they cannot receive government benefits. Gaining work authorization can take several months, according to Peshterianu, thus Bridge relies on the community to aid in fulfilling basic needs.
Peshterianu says, “A lot of people are offering whatever help they can.” Peshterianu says, “It’s depending on who will come forward and offer housing, as affordable housing is very scarce right now. It was hard enough to find it for refugees, it is very hard for us to find housing for an additional group of people.”
Linthicum, when describing his reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, says, “I felt sad. I had some of my previous SIV families I worked with reaching out to me and asking to help bring their family here…I was sad to think about people being left behind and not having a lot of answers on what we could do to help. I think right now is just trying to make the best of it. We’re going to be getting people, let’s give them the best service that we can and what we can do for people who were able to get out.”
Peshterianu wants to know how Sewanee, which has a longstanding relationship with Bridge, plans to aid the community in addressing the humanitarian crisis, “How is Sewanee going to help us?… Here we are enjoying our life in a beautiful private school, are we doing everything we can? Or are we just observing it? We hear that resources are very limited, so what can we do? What I think is important for us right now as a community is where we stand. Are we doing it, are we doing it together, or are we hoping the government will take care of it somehow?”