On Aug. 15, shock rippled around the world as Taliban forces took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Over the ensuing weeks, people watched on their TVs and phones as people crowded Kabul International Airport attempting to flee. Among those trying to leave were Afghans who had worked with the United States military, nongovernmental organizations or the media during the previous two decades of conflict.
On Aug. 29, President Joe Biden directed Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to coordinate Operation Allies Welcome for the roughly 120,000 Afghans who left. Over the following months, the government has been slowly processing the evacuees and resettling them in the U.S.
Since Oct. 2, 18 of an estimated 40 Afghan evacuees planned for resettlement in the area by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte have arrived in Asheville. They have been placed in temporary housing in four AirBnbs offered by local homeowners, a private home donated for three months, another private home vacated for six weeks and a local hotel.
“These are people who supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan for many years, which is part of the reason we are so protective of their privacy and safety,” says Noele Aabye, a Catholic Charities caseworker in the nonprofit’s Asheville office. “Keeping in mind they still have family in Afghanistan and have been supporting American efforts there for a long time.”
Two children are among those being resettled, and Catholic Charities is working to enroll them in Buncombe County Schools. Additionally, one teenager has arrived and is seeking to enroll in college. Catholic Charities declined to share more detailed information about the individuals, such as their previous employment in Afghanistan.
Coming to America
Each new arrival will have endured weeks of traveling prior to arriving in Asheville that began at a U.S. military facility for screening, Aabye explains. Evacuees will have been relocated from Afghanistan to bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Germany, among other countries, for security vetting, medical exams and vaccinations.
When Afghans arrive in Asheville, Aabye meets them at the airport, often late at night and with as little as six hours’ notice. She has been learning basic phrases in Dari and Pashto, the two official languages of Afghanistan, but also has 24-hour phone access to interpreters. The new arrivals are “a little disoriented” upon arrival, she says. “They’re exhausted and very much looking forward to finding their feet somewhere and unpack.”
They’re treated to a culturally appropriate hot meal, such as vegetarian fried rice or curry; many new arrivals are Muslim and eat halal meat while abstaining from pork products and alcohol. Aabye says Catholic Charities customizes pantry boxes for each new arrival as well. “Food is so central to each one of us,” she says. “It’s been a particularly difficult situation to be put somewhere where there’s no familiar food necessarily.”
Evacuees are immediately put into temporary housing. But Catholic Charities still needs both temporary and permanent affordable housing, ideally in the vicinity of support services in Asheville. (Some families may be moved to Black Mountain, where there have been offers of donated housing, Aabye says.)
Catholic Charities staff doesn’t have the resources to sort through donated clothing or household items, she says, but the new arrivals will need furniture once they enter permanent housing. (Locals with available housing for rent or who want to make donations of money or gift cards should call 800-227-7261 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Nationwide, the immigration status of Afghan evacuees varies depending on their previous jobs in Afghanistan. Those who worked for the U.S. military or government for an extended period generally qualify for lawful permanent resident status, as well as federal help through the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But others — including those coming to Asheville — have “humanitarian parole” status. These arrivals usually don’t receive any federal assistance; however, in September, Congress passed a bill to provide services to humanitarian parolees. Additionally, parolees will only be allowed to stay in the country legally for two years without further approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“The reality is, refugees are essentially resettled into poverty,” says Josh Hinson, program director for the UNC Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative at the UNC School of Social Work.
While arrivals may be skilled and speak English, Hinson says, the pressing need to find employment means many end up working in low-paying industries like food service, housekeeping and meat processing. And after being resettled for some time, refugees may experience the difficulties of meeting their needs on a low income.
“They’re saying, ‘How am I going to afford this?” says Hinson. “‘How am I going to avoid eviction?’”
Acclimating the new guests in the early days and weeks is important. “We want to reassure people that they’re very much welcome in our community,” Aabye says.
Catholic Charities caseworkers will help to enroll evacuees in English classes if needed, connect them with employment services and social services benefits and enroll children in school, explains Sandy Buck, the nonprofit’s regional director. The charity provides case management for up to 90 days, as well as ongoing support services for years.
Refugees often experience “a complete culture shock,” says Mark Gibney, a humanities and politics professor at UNC Asheville who teaches courses about immigration and refugee law. He surmises that some Afghan evacuees may have a comparatively easier time adjusting because they have worked with Americans. Still, arriving in Asheville will be “like entering a different world,” he says.
With that in mind, addressing the mental health needs of resettled people is paramount, says Hinson. The UNC Mental Health and Wellness Initiative has provided treatment for arrivals in three North Carolina counties since 2014; it expanded services to seven additional counties, including Buncombe, in 2020. The initiative has reached out to Catholic Charities to offer services, including telehealth screening and treatment through interpreters, for the arriving Afghans.
Resettlement agencies will refer clients to counselors who tailor their assistance, Hinson says, noting that other cultures and languages have different ways of discussing mental health. “Typically we’ll use words like ‘stress’ and ‘coping’ rather than mental health or mental illness or depression,” he explains. “We try to normalize and reduce stigma in that way.”
“We are very trauma-focused in terms of our refugee mental health,” Hinson continues, explaining that “refugees have all experienced trauma by nature of their refugee status — this well-founded fear of persecution.” Fleeing Afghanistan so quickly will have caused upheaval in their lives, and new arrivals are worried about the safety of loved ones still in Afghanistan.
“We’ve mostly been receiving individuals who have been torn away from their families,” explains Aabye. “[They] are not only adjusting to a completely new language and lifestyle here, but doing so while struggling with the trauma of having left their families behind under very uncertain circumstances.” She says reunifying with their families is their “primary concern.”
Moving in, moving on
Resettlement, even with the support of a community, can be tough. “What we often don’t think about is the trauma in the host country,” Hinson says. He cites acculturation stress, shame, survivor guilt and Islamophobic bias as hardships that Afghan refugees may face.
In his experience, Hinson says, many refugees initially meet the criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. As they settle into their new lives, anxiety and depression may set in.
Representatives from Catholic Charities are optimistic that Asheville will embrace the Afghan evacuees, noting the numerous residents who have offered housing and that some employers have reached out offering potential work.
Gibney says that the successful resettlement of refugees depends on how well they are integrated by the community that absorbs them. He points to the Hmong from China and Southeast Asia and their successful resettlement in Minnesota as an ideal scenario. Given the Afghans’ alliance with the U.S. military, “I’m hoping and I’m expecting a very warm welcome for this group,” Gibney says.
For locals looking to help with that effort, Hinson suggests an organization called Welcoming America, which has recommendations for supporting Afghan evacuees. “These are not people coming to take your jobs; these are not terrorists,” adds Hinson. “These are people who, in many cases, have been allies of the U.S.”
Catholic Charities appreciates the community who have sought to help the new arrivals. Says Aabye, “We’re looking forward to helping people on this process of integrating into the community, while being mindful that we don’t want it to be an overwhelming experience either.”