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Newly arrived Afghans test a refugee resettlement system that's rebuilding on the fly

A newly arrived Afghan family stocks up on donated household items at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Virginia.
A newly arrived Afghan family stocks up on donated household items at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Most days, newly arrived Afghans fill the lobby of a church basement in Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Families with young kids, young couples, older adults — they're all here for help with their resettlement cases, and to stock up on donated toiletries and housewares that are piled everywhere in the Fairfax office of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.

Since August, the organization has helped as many people as it did all of last year.

"For us, that feels like a surge already," said CEO Kristyn Peck in an interview.

Northern Virginia is home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the U.S. That makes it a prime destination for new arrivals. And Peck expects her office to get even busier.

"People are coming with really pressing immediate needs. Sometimes it's just as basic as clothing, showers, food," she said. "And then trying to make sure that they have a place to stay that night. And then move them into permanent housing as quickly as possible."

The hallways are lined with boxes of toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo and diapers, as well as household items like plates, mugs and drinking glasses. Office cubicles serve as storage for pillows and bedding. So many donations have poured in since August that the organization needed a storage trailer in the parking lot to handle the overflow.

Shelves of donated supplies at a refugee resettlement office in Northern Virginia.
Joel Rose / NPR
Shelves of donated supplies at a refugee resettlement office in Northern Virginia.

"Today, I come here because I need some stuff like the sheets," said a man who asked us to simply call him Khan. He worked in the Afghan government, and requested that we not use his full name because his wife and family are still in danger in Kabul.

For now, Khan is living with one of his sons, who's going to college in Virginia. And says he feels welcome here.

"The people is very good, they are very honest. And they help us a lot," he said in an interview.

Resettlement organizations like this one are rebuilding on the fly after deep cuts during the Trump administration. Last year, the U.S. accepted the lowest number of refugees since the modern resettlement program began.

Now Congress has authorized more than $6 billion to support Afghan resettlement. The roughly 200 field offices that do this work are scrambling to prepare. They're trying to find more affordable housing, and hiring as fast as they can.

The numbers are daunting.

Roughly 53,000 Afghans are living on military bases in the U.S., and 14,000 more will soon be on their way from military bases overseas. The vast majority are not technically refugees; they're entering the U.S. under what's known as "humanitarian parole." And they have lots of questions about how it works.

"It's a new country," said David Mutombo, the head of Virginia operations for Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area. "So most of the time when they arrive, they don't have a clue about their next step."

Handmade signs decorate the hallway at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Va.
Joel Rose / NPR
Handmade signs decorate the hallway at a refugee resettlement office in Fairfax County, Va.

That's the case for one newlywed couple who stopped by the office this week. She's a U.S. citizen, he's Afghan. They escaped together from Kabul in August, along with the man's brother. They asked that we not use their full names, because his parents are still in Afghanistan, where they've been threatened by the Taliban.

The woman, who asked to be identified only by her initials, N.T., says they spent a few weeks on military bases in Italy and New Jersey, before coming back to her home in Virginia.

"Right now, the hardest thing is basically just not knowing what their status is," N.T. said. "We don't have any of their documents back yet. We don't have any of their work permits. We don't have anything yet. His main struggle is he doesn't know where to start and what to start," she said about her husband.

What's next for Afghans with humanitarian parole will look in some ways like what refugees typically get. They're eligible for housing assistance, and help finding a job. But that all depends on resettlement agencies like this one doing more — and doing it faster — than they ever have before.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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