Afghan Refugee Update: One Year Later

By Baxter Richardson

One year ago, by August 30, 2021, the U.S. had evacuated 82,300 Afghans from Kabul airport. Of these, 13,000 arrived at Fort McCoy and of these, 70 families have been settled in Dane County, primarily in Madison. How are they doing after one year?

Because of the size and suddenness of this influx and the almost total unpreparedness of the resettlement agencies (Jewish Social Services, the main resettlement agency in Dane, had drastically downsized due to the Trump administration ban on refugees), the first few months (September – December) were near chaotic as agencies scrambled to assemble resources and staff. But the agencies on the front lines- Jewish Social Services, Open Doors For Refugees, Catholic Multicultural Center and others- mobilized quickly and were supported with money, donations and volunteers in rapid fashion. And the Afghans themselves showed remarkable resilience in adjusting to, what has to be to them, a strange and forbidding culture. While all these refugees had a connection with the U.S. as employees or as family of employees, they were all subject to Taliban vengeance if they remained in Afghanistan. They all arrived as Humanitarian Paroles, a legal status that provides medical care, work permits, driver licenses, food assistance and financial support for two years. And during that time they must apply for citizenship.

So how are they doing? The information, which at this point is mostly anecdotal, is that they are making significant progress toward independence and citizenship. The men (few if any women are employed) are working, school age kids are enrolled in Verona and Madison schools, the Literacy Network has programs in a variety of locations, the men have drivers licenses, and, most significantly, all have lawyers (many pro bono) assisting with citizenship issues. Which is not say everything is working smoothly. Appropriate housing at affordable cost is very difficult as is getting women into literacy programs. Many of the families are from remote villages and many women are without education.

Faith communities, as you would expect, have responded vigorously. A Refugee and Immigration Ministry, lead by a joint First Baptist Church and Bethany United Methodist Church has established a working relationship with six families in the Allied neighborhood. Largely, but not exclusively, the group assists families make use of resources available through Joining Forces for Families, Jewish Social Services, Literacy Network and others. Temple Beth El’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Action Team is heading a group with members from six congregations aiming to get Humanitarian Parole status for a family of six (stranded in Afghanistan) whose 13 year old son was separated in the chaotic Kabul evacuation and sent to Fort McCoy. The son is now in Madison.

But Humanitarian Parole is incredibly difficult. 46,000 HP applications have been filed since September, 2021, with 5,000 having been adjudicated, but only about 297 approved. The Afghan Adjustment Act, which has bipartisan support, will change this if it becomes law.

No easy road ahead, but it is inspiring to see how many have answered the call to minister to the refugees among us.

Contact Baxter Richardson for more about Afghan resettlement.