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Pittsburgh Will Help To Resettle Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan Crisis

Mohammad Asif Khan
Taliban fighters and Afghans gather inside the city of Farah, capital of Farah province, southwest Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Amid the Taliban's rapid takeover of the country, tens of thousands of Afghans are scrambling to escape their homeland.

Pittsburgh will serve as a resettlement site for those fleeing Afghanistan as the U.S. beats a frantic retreat from the country, a local aid group announced Tuesday.

One family has already arrived, and another is on its way, according to Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of refugee and immigrant services for Squirrel Hill-based Jewish Family and Community Services.

The national resettlement agency HIAS identified Pittsburgh as a resettlement site, according to JFCS leaders. JFCS will lead the local effort, along with another social services nonprofit, Acculturation for Justice, Access, and Peace Outreach, located in the Middle Hill District.

“We know that it's incredibly difficult for these individuals to change their lives and move to a new country — abandon their homes, jobs and communities,” Smith-Tapia on a call with reporters Tuesday. “So our goal is to help them to successfully navigate this difficult process and get settled as quickly as possible.”

The designated resettlement agencies plan to work with about a dozen organizations, as well as the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, to secure housing, food, clothing, and other essential items for new arrivals.

The groups will greet the refugees at the airport and take them to receive medical care, which includes COVID-19 testing and vaccination, Tapia said. She said refugees will later receive assistance finding schools and employment. The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania launched an online fundraiser Tuesday to support resettlement services.

“We are ready for their arrival and are working together,” Smith-Tapia said. “We are taking a community approach because we know that welcoming refugees is not only our responsibility. It’s the work of our community, and if we work together, it's going to be more successful.”

Smith-Tapia noted that the family that has already arrived in Pittsburgh managed to travel on tourist visas. They have a relative who lives in the area, Smith-Tapia said.

To date, most Afghan refugees must obtain a Special Immigrant Visa to be granted entry into the U.S. Congress created the SIV program for Afghan translators, interpreters, engineers, and other civilians who supported the U.S. during its 20-year war in the country.

An estimated 20,000 families who have won or are awaiting SIV approval have yet to be evacuated from Afghanistan. The U.S. military had halted operations at the Kabul airport Monday after civilians flooded the runway, desperately seeking to escape the Taliban. Flights have since resumed, and 700 to 800 people were evacuated overnight.

It is not clear how many SIV recipients could end up in Pittsburgh.

“The situation on the ground, obviously, in Afghanistan is changing quickly and constantly, and we have been just told to sit tight," JFCS President and CEO Jordan Golin said. "We've been given no information about the number of SIVs that we could expect here.”

Noorulhaq Fazly, an employment specialist at JFCS and an Afghan SIV recipient himself, has spoken with people in his home country who have struggled to gather the paperwork necessary for an SIV application. The biggest obstacle, Fazly said, is to obtain a letter of recommendation from a former supervisor to prove that the applicant performed work for the U.S.

“There are people who worked in 2012 or ‘13, but now they have [a] very hard time to be connected to their … actual supervisor [who] worked at a mission in Afghanistan that’s completed and that's done,” Fazly said. “And they have to wait and wait until they get that letter.”

Fazly, who served as a legal and political assistant to U.S. State Department officials until immigrating in 2016, said he has received desperate calls and messages from people in Afghanistan who are “trying to catch any means, any tools to be out of the country.”

“This situation right now … it happened so quick, and I think for people it’s a big shock," Fazly said. "So they don't know what to do, where to go. There's a huge panic in the country right now.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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