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As people flee Afghanistan, resettlement agencies in Chicago prepare for more refugees

Some organizations that assist refugees already are seeing an uptick in refugees from Afghanistan, though most are likely to resettle in other parts of the United States.

Lina Hamidi, a program coordinator at Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, talks to an Afghan American (who is not named for safety reasons at the request of the center) who is hoping to bring her family in Afghanistan to the U.S., Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Lina Hamidi, a program coordinator at Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, talks to an Afghan American (who is not named for safety reasons at the request of the center) who is hoping to bring her family in Afghanistan to the U.S., Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

While most people fleeing political changes in Afghanistan won’t make Chicago their new home, some area resettlement agencies are already seeing an uptick in the number of refugees coming from the country.

Heartland Alliance is expecting to resettle in the next month or so about 40 people who have Special Immigrant Visas, said Lea Tienou-Gustafson, the director of refugee and immigrant community services for the Chicago-based resettlement agency. That’s about how many Special Immigrant Visa holders the agency would resettle in an average year.

Within the first two weeks of August, Heartland Alliance resettled about 20 people with Special Immigrant Visas, Tienou-Gustafson said. The visas are designated for Afghans who worked as translators for the U.S. military, worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan or worked for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, according to the State Department.

“There’s been a ramping up of people coming to the United States as SIV holders in the last several months with all the anticipated changes in Afghanistan,” Tienou-Gustafson said. “We were hearing — because we have relationships with the people that we resettled before — and they were talking to their family members or friends, these people are hoping to travel soon. So we were expecting to have an influx, and now we are hoping that influx still occurs.”

The Taliban seized political power in Afghanistan two weeks before the Aug. 31 deadline of when the U.S. would end its 20-year military presence. Since then, chaotic pictures have emerged from the airport in Kabul where people are trying to evacuate from the country. On Thursday, 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members were killed in an attack near the airport.

In West Rogers Park, 200 to 300 people have flooded into the Muslim Women Resource Center in the past two weeks seeking help getting relatives out of Afghanistan, said Sima Quraishi, the executive director for the center. Some worked for the U.S. government, and they now fear that history will harm relatives still in Afghanistan, she said.

Afghan Americans, who are not named for safety reasons at the request of the Muslim Women Resource Center, wait for their case worker to advise them on the steps they will need to take to bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. at the Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Afghan Americans, who are not named for safety reasons at the request of the Muslim Women Resource Center, wait for their case worker to advise them on the steps they will need to take to bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. at the Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A group of about 20 volunteers — some who have taken time off work — are helping Afghan nationals translate documents and get their paperwork in order to apply for Special Immigrant Visas for their relatives, Quraishi said.

Many are also seeking emotional support as news about Afghanistan takes a toll on their mental health, she said. Some individuals have stayed for hours, sharing stories and crying with other families waiting at the center, Quraishi said.

“It’s also the Afghans that are here that are having such a difficult time,” she said.

While some will end up in Chicago, most fleeing Afghanistan will resettle in other parts of the country with larger Afghan communities, said Marc Adelman, the associate vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The organization administers the state’s refugee resettlement program.

Each year, about 100 people from Afghanistan are resettled in Illinois, Adelman said. That number trails the hundreds of others who have resettled in places like Pennsylvania, Texas, California and the Washington, D.C., area, Adelman said.

From July 2018 through June 2019, Afghanistan was one of the top five countries of origin for refugees who resettled in Illinois. During that time period, 37 people were resettled from Afghanistan, according to the most recent annual report on the state’s resettlement program.

At least two other Afghan families will soon arrive to Chicago and be resettled by RefugeeOne, a Chicago-based resettlement agency, said Jims Porter, a spokesperson for the agency.

“These are individuals who really risk their lives and their families’ lives to help the U.S. so it’s not only something we should do, in my opinion, it’s a moral obligation,” Porter said.

The process to resettle families with Special Immigrant Visas compared to those with refugee designation is similar. Immigrants with these types of visas tend to already speak English and have a professional work experience that can help them adjust to life in the U.S. faster, Porter said.

Susan Sperry, the executive director of World Relief Chicagoland, said the resettlement organization is expecting some Afghan families that could arrive in the Chicago area by the end of September.

Sperry said the organization is pushing for the U.S. to adjust the refugee process to ensure people who want to leave Afghanistan and seek refugee status are able to do so from a safe location. It typically could take years for someone who has fled their home country to seek refugee status elsewhere.

And as Quraishi seeks more volunteers to help the families coming into the Muslim Women Resource Center, she is also advocating for a way to allow more Afghans into the U.S. She had been visiting Afghanistan regularly, and she recalled talking to young girls who wanted to become engineers. She’s unsure what their future holds now.

“For 20 years, they (Afghans) built their homes, their lives and now they look back and nothing is there,” Quraishi said.

Alina Hanif, a social worker at Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, right, talks to an Afghan American (who is not named for safety reason at the request of the center) who is hoping to bring her brother in Afghanistan to the U.S. Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Alina Hanif, a social worker at Muslim Women Resource Center in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, right, talks to an Afghan American (who is not named for safety reason at the request of the center) who is hoping to bring her brother in Afghanistan to the U.S. Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, 2021. The Muslim Women Resource Center is helping Afghan Americans bring their families in Afghanistan to the U.S. after the Taliban took control of the country.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Contributing: AP

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.