USCCB, Catholic Charities Ramp Up Efforts to Welcome Afghan Refugees

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of nine resettlement networks in the United States, partnering with 45 Catholic Charities agencies across the country to provide resettlement services.

Afghan refugees are being processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Sept. 8.
Afghan refugees are being processed inside Hangar 5 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Sept. 8. (photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the next several months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Charities locations across the U.S. will welcome upwards of 7,500 refugees from Afghanistan. 

The USCCB is one of nine resettlement networks in the United States, partnering with 45 Catholic Charities agencies across the country to provide resettlement services.

“For the past few weeks, we have been trying to coordinate and help ready our network to be able to respond to an increased number of vulnerable Afghans being resettled throughout our network,” said Rachel Pollock, director of resettlement services for the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Services.

The influx of refugees is a result of the recent departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Many refugees fled the country during a two-week period between when U.S. President Joe Biden announced the end of the war in Afghanistan Aug. 14 and the Taliban’s deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31. The United States then scrambled to deploy more military units to Kabul to facilitate its diplomatic and humanitarian evacuation.

In an interview with CNA, a refugee, who cannot be named for security reasons, shared that she had to leave Afghanistan because her husband worked for the U.S. Army for eight years as an interpreter.

“It was dangerous for anyone who worked with the U.S. because the Taliban saw them as traitors to their country and traitors to the religion of Islam,” she said. “If someone is a traitor, he has no right to be alive. My husband’s life was in danger.”

The refugee and her husband spent two days and one night outside the Kabul airport and a couple days inside the airport with “scarce water and food,” she said.

“The Taliban were beating us with wooden stakes and firing on us to control the people,” she said.

The refugee left her family members and a “country where we were free together,” she said, referring to the time before the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan.

“It’s painful to leave home,” she said. “I only share my tears with my daughter and husband.”

While she was able to leave Afghanistan because of her husband’s work, she is faced with starting over in the U.S., with little-to-no communication with her family back home out of fear for their safety.

“There was no time for people to get their affairs in order, to say ‘goodbye,’” said Stephen Carattini, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

Carattini, who has worked in refugee resettlement since 2004, said this time is different from what he has experienced over the last several years of helping to resettle refugees.

“This is very traumatic,” he said. “We're talking to people who were in Kabul just last week or two weeks ago, under those terrible circumstances at the airport, and who have been separated from loved ones. This is all happening in real time, so prayer is critical and vital for the people of Afghanistan, for these folks who have been forced to flee their homes under such dramatic circumstances.” 

Previously, Carattini said, Catholic Charities would have received notification that refugees were arriving at the airport in the U.S., so they could organize housing, provide culturally appropriate food, and even greet them at the airport. With the pace and scale of the evacuation this time, they are having to move much more quickly in locating resources and preparing for their arrival.

“Since 2008, we’ve settled over 4,000 men, women and children from Afghanistan in our diocese, and, typically, in the last few years, we‘ve been resettling approximately 350 a year,” said Carattini. “Now, obviously, we’re in a different world. In the last two months alone, we’ve received over 200 Afghan SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] holders, and we’re anticipating a significant number to come.” 

Pollock thinks the refugees will begin traveling to their final destination—where Catholic Charities will be awaiting their arrival—in the next couple weeks. When the refugees arrive, volunteers and employees of Catholic Charities will help them secure housing, reconnect with family members, enroll in school, find employment, and begin life anew in the United States.

“We’ll all have to work together to build as much capacity as we possibly can,” she said. “It’s not often that we get to respond to a crisis of this magnitude in our local communities. It’s a great opportunity to put into practice our commitments. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to embrace, to respond to the call, to respond with love.”

According to the White House, the United States airlifted more than 120,000 people out of Afghanistan before the withdrawal of U.S. forces was complete. The refugees arrive in the U.S. through various military bases, where they go through processing, which includes both security and health screening.

Pollock said the USCCB becomes involved once the processing has been completed, to help determine where in the Catholic Charities network is best for the family.

Currently, only refugees with a current Special Immigrant Visa are eligible for benefits and financial assistance through Catholic Charities. Refugees designated as “parolees,” either because they are an asylum seeker or because their SIV had not been processed, do not have access to the same benefits.

Obtaining a SIV is a yearslong process, which requires referrals from the military, background checks, security clearance, letters and an interview, among other steps, said Tom Mrosko, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Cleveland.

“The goal was to evacuate all the SIVs, the folks that were pending SIV status, and then about 50,000 other individuals through a humanitarian parole process,” said Mrosko. “So you have the typical SIV and refugee side of things that is occurring in tandem with these parolees, but without having the ability to work right away, nor with some of the financial resources that an SIV or refugee would receive the minute they get here. We’re really trying to think outside the box.”

Cleveland, like other Catholic Charities locations, is relying heavily on the generosity of the community to find free or very-low-rent accommodations for those who are arriving.

“This is a different type of challenge, but the support for us has been tremendous,” Mrosko said.

They are also preparing to support the mental health of the refugees.

“I would imagine a lot of these individuals will be grieving what they’ve lost and who they’ve left behind just two weeks ago,” Mrosko said. “I’m sure mentally they weren’t preparing for an evacuation quite like this.”

In addition to having immigration lawyers and Department of Justice-accredited representatives, Catholic Charities in Cleveland has counselors and psychologists on staff, as well as a “Survivors of Torture Program” to support any individual who has been tortured outside the U.S.

“This is right in line with Catholic social teaching; it goes back to the Gospel, that we should provide safety and comfort and food to those in need,” Mrosko said. “We’re all created in the image of Christ, and there’s a dignity in all of us, no matter where you are from.”

For Catholic Charities in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, providing an opportunity to recreate is another key priority. They are working alongside the USCCB to establish “Morale, Wellness and Recreation” centers at Fort McCoy, one of the military bases receiving refugees from Afghanistan. The goal of the MWR is to provide a place where people can build community with other refugees and have space to relax, said Karen Becker, director of marketing for Catholic Charities in La Crosse.

“One of the things we‘re going to be doing as a wellness center is offering women a space where they can come and have afternoon tea and be able to build female relationships and have people play with their children, to give them a little bit of respite and mental-health care, as well,” Becker said. “There’s a lot of trauma in these folks' lives, and whatever normalcy we can try to offer back to them is part of what we do.”

The kids at Fort McCoy are starting to recognize Becker’s truck, she said, because she often brings soccer balls, sidewalk chalk, games and other toys with her, all of which have been donated by community members.

“I have seen such an incredible outpouring of generosity,” Becker said. “We asked for diapers, and we got boxes and boxes and boxes of diapers. The next day, I asked for flip-flops, and I got inundated with flip-flops. When it rained, we had people bringing us rain ponchos.”

At Fort McCoy, base officials determine which buildings are available for housing and other services for the refugees. Then a team of relief organizations, Catholic Charities among them, come in to establish “neighborhoods,” Becker said, which include an MWR, a Red Cross distribution site, medical services and other supplies.

“Many times, when we look at where we provide services in a disaster, we think, ‘Let’s give them food, let’s get them clothing, let’s get them housing,’ and those are the very basic needs, but, on top of that then comes being able to offer humor and human connection,” she said.

Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma is planning to resettle 25 to 50 families of the 800 refugees who are expected to arrive in Oklahoma in the coming weeks. Though the number seems small in comparison to other locations, it is a “really big deal for those 25 to 50 families,” said Father Brian O’Brien, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“We saw the pictures; we saw what was happening and is still happening in Afghanistan — people who didn’t get on those planes are being arrested and killed,” said Father O’Brien. “That’s these people. If they were still there, that’s what would be happening to them.”

Additional locations are needed to welcome refugees, said Father O’Brien, because some of the places that would have said “Yes,” California and the Gulf Coast, are not able to because of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

“Normally, those places would be onboard and ready to go, but they don’t have housing because the housing is being used by displaced people,” he said. “It’s very complex and fast moving, and it shows our interconnectedness that we often take for granted.”

Father O’Brien said the effort is about the goodness of the Church and her willingness to help people.

“Most will have obviously never been to the United States, and many won’t speak English, but they’re fleeing for their lives, and we have a chance to help them,” said Father O’Brien. “We’re in this because we love people, and we want to help them in whatever way we can. It’s what Jesus would have us do.”