Catholic Charities Mobilize to Aid Afghan Refugees, Urge Continued Prayers and Assistance

Catholic groups assist newly-arrived Afghan refugees with housing and jobs.

Boys ride a bicycle along a road in Kabul on August 19, 2021, amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan.
Boys ride a bicycle along a road in Kabul on August 19, 2021, amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (photo: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP/Getty)

Catholic groups are welcoming Afghan refugees into the country as the U.S. military continues their attempts to evacuate up to 15,000 American citizens and tens of thousands Afghan people trying to leave the country. 

The Taliban seized Kabul Sunday as the Biden administration’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region by Aug. 31 was underway. Even as desperate Afghanis continue to seek passage on U.S. flights evacuating personnel from Kabul’s airport, which remains under American military control, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Catholic Charities, and other faith-based groups have intensified their efforts working with the U.S. government to assist Afghan refugees who are in need of housing and aid as they begin new lives in the U.S.

Bill Canny, the Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) for the UDCCB, told the Register that his office has been working for 14 years in collaboration with Catholic charities across the country to resettle Afghan SIVs (Special Immigrant Visa holders), ever since the program “was created for both Afghanis and Iraqis who assisted our military during those wars.” 

His office worked on Operation Allies Refuge with government agencies over the last month to “receive some Afghan SIVs at Fort Lee in Virginia” helping to provide “reception services, accompanying them as they went about getting certain forms filled out.” He said his office’s assistance in receiving Afghan SIVs into the country has paused temporarily “until the situation clarifies in Kabul” and “many of the Catholic Charities agencies are resettling the Afghan SIVs that have come in over the last month.”

Canny said that “every refugee and Afghan SIV that comes in is vetted for security purposes and they join other refugees who have suffered persecution in getting assistance for housing and any medical assistance required, children getting into school, and English lessons. First and foremost is helping them find a job and all the refugees that come into the country who’re able to work within three months, about 75-80% of them do actually find work.” He said that there have been housing concerns for these refugees as “Northern Virginia, Sacramento, California, Texas and Florida would be the top four places” they settle given their family and military contacts, and “it is becoming evident in some of these areas, such as Northern Virginia and Sacramento that housing is difficult.”

Canny encouraged those who would want to help to contact their local Catholic Charities and also applauded many parishes that have “volunteer networks to help refugees and asylum seekers and we foster those sorts of programs” and are “spending time with refugees, helping them become more familiar with our culture, helping them move around to get to doctor's appointments and job interviews, and helping get children into school and speaking English with them.”


Assistance With Basic Needs and Housing

In Virginia, Commonwealth Catholic Charities CEO Jay Brown told the Register about the work the group has been doing including engaging “on the ground definitely when the Fort Lee mission was up and running to provide that initial welcoming hospitality, making sure that people knew where to go and how to get through the processing that was happening there.” He said in their offices in Newport News, Richmond, and Roanoke have been helping “those individuals whose final destination is here in Virginia, and making sure that they have access to all of the resources that they need to really thrive in their new communities.” In the last few weeks, he said the group has seen “about 22 individuals who have come through” their Newport News office and has served over 100 Afghan refugees.

Supplies for SIV's resettling in the United States from Afghanistan.
Supplies for SIV's resettling in the United States from Afghanistan.

Newport News Resettlement Program Manager Kristen Larcher discussed their work in the past few weeks with Afghans who worked as interpreters for the U.S. government and military. At Fort Lee, she said, their staff would “assist the Department of State and help with cultural orientation, keeping the children occupied while the parents were doing paperwork.” Roughly 200 Afghans came in per flight in the mission which started July 31st and ended on Aug. 16 with a total of 3,500 arriving at Fort Lee.

Regarding future efforts, Larcher noted that the U.S. is trying to plan for a larger-scale evacuation with the Secretary of Defense’s recent approval of assistance for the Department of State to provide transportation, temporary housing and support for up to 22,000 Afghan SIV applicants. “The majority of those will be transported to the U.S.,” she said. “Once in the US, they will do processing and then they will head to their final destinations. We've been told that three states will be heading a lot of that and that would be, we believe, Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia.”

Larcher said that at this point the refugees’ “biggest need across the board is housing.” The resettlement agencies “have the responsibility of providing basic necessities, the first being housing. These families are coming so fast, it's making it challenging to make those negotiations with landlords, find vacant units, especially those that are safe and affordable.” She said that if people who are “connected to property management groups, are private lenders themselves, or know of private landlords” would like to help, they should reach out. She encouraged others who would like to help to check out the charity’s Amazon wishlist, which “provides a specific outline of what are called housing supplies” that “go directly into refugee households, and that tide them over in their first month or so here.”

Supplies for SIV's resettling in the United States from Afghanistan.
Supplies for SIV's resettling in the United States from Afghanistan.

Brown added that “it's been just terrific to be able to see the support of the community” for these refugees and recounted a conversation he had with an individual who dropped what they were doing immediately “just to run over to Target to pick up everything we needed to set up a household for one of these SIV arrivals.” He said the group is in need of volunteers in addition to financial support and encouraged those interested to visit their website.

“We're just proud to support the men and women who served alongside of our service members, who risked their lives to make sure that our folks were safe,” he said. “We're here to provide warm hospitality and to help people thrive in our communities. We know that, generally speaking, all of our communities are better because of the refugee members of those communities. And we're just excited to see the fruits of this new population that's coming to enrich our lives and enrich our communities.”


Prayers and Efforts for Those Still in Kabul

Regarding the situation in Kabul, Canny said that he supports the U.S. government “seeking to get our citizens and military personnel, but also the Afghanis who have helped our military over the years and helped nonprofit organizations and contractors.” He said they have a very valid “fear of being persecuted due to their relationship with the United States government and its institutions and military,” and therefore “we should do everything we can to protect them and get them out of harm's way.”

“We're very committed to helping the Afghanis resettle in this country,” he said. “We consider them our brothers and sisters and I would exhort Americans and American Catholics to open their arms and hearts to these people and to all refugees. They suffer tremendously. They're just trying to protect themselves and their children and their families.” 

A large concern he had was for the women and children in Afghanistan “who have made gains in the last 20 years in the areas of education and equality,” saying “we hate to see those gains erased.” He added that Afghanistan is a poor country that “needs our continued help” and “organizations like Catholic Relief Services are committed to staying there and providing assistance in areas such as agriculture and girls’ education. That's a very important and noble effort. It's what we should do as Catholic institutions. I applaud that and I think we have to be mindful, once we get through this situation that we have to continue to help the Afghan people.” 

Brown said that Commonwealth Catholic Charities employs “a number of people who are themselves SIV holders who have come over in the last few years,” and so his staff “have this lived experience of what’s been going on.” He said that staff with family members in Kabul have heard about what’s happening on the ground and “the promising thing is that they still have the ability to communicate directly with friends and family members and loved ones in Kabul. So, that is certainly a sign of hope, but at the same time people are people are scared, and there's certainly a sense of helplessness to see what is going to happen.” 

He said that they’re “trying to provide every bit of support that we can to them as they try to maintain connection with their families back in Afghanistan.

“Any amount of prayer that we can muster from the Catholic and the faith community generally for our staff and for their families is certainly much appreciated.” 

A Taliban fighter holds RPG rocket propelled as he stands guard with others at an entrance gate outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on August 17, 2021.

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