Over 125 Afghans who were evacuated by the United States amid the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this summer now call Buncombe County home.
It’s been a long journey. On Aug. 29, President Joe Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the resettlement as part of Operation Allies Welcome. While housed at military bases for processing, all evacuees received security vetting, medical exams and vaccinations.
As Afghans — some 76,000 in total — left the bases, community partners resettled them as part of the State Department’s Afghan Placement and Assistance Program. Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte and Lutheran Services Carolinas, two nonprofits with offices in Asheville, are the community partners meeting that need locally.
Catholic Charities began resettling Afghan evacuees in the area Oct. 2 and have received 42 people, says caseworker Noele Aabye. (See “Replanted,” Xpress, Nov. 10, 2021; avl.mx/au3.) Three of those evacuees have since relocated closer to family to other states.
The first Afghan evacuees with Lutheran Services Carolinas arrived Jan. 11, and the organization has settled 69 people in the area over the past month, says Laura Collins, the nonprofit’s Asheville area manager. Eighteen have relocated. The charity opened an office of its New Americans Program at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in December; the final group of Afghans departed military bases for resettlement Feb. 15.
“This is more refugees at one point in one time than has ever come into the U.S.,” Collins explains. “It was the largest noncombatant airlift in American military history. It was a big deal.”
‘We are called to help’
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has given Lutheran Services Carolinas the use of three former classrooms as office space. “Part of our congregation’s mission is serving all people, so we were thrilled to be able to use our comfortable spaces to partner with LSC’s Afghan placement program to support people who have been through so much and will arrive with so little,” writes Pastor Matt Smith in a statement.
He is aware some Americans have opposed resettling Afghans, but that isn’t his congregation’s view. “Our choice is really simple at that point, no matter our politics or fears: Will we help these people or not?” Smith says. “It was a really easy choice for St. Mark’s that yes, we are called to help feed, clothe and care for those in need.”
Lutheran Services Carolinas gets little notice of when individuals will arrive and few details other than the base they’re coming from, Collins says. Through Pashto and Dari interpreters, they’ve learned that many of their evacuees worked with the Afghan military. “They were the folks out in the villages who were fighting the Taliban through the Afghan army, and that made them targets,” Collins explains, adding some of their evacuees were wounded in the war.
The group comes from a variety of educational backgrounds. “We’ve got one man who was a dentist in Afghanistan and other folks who don’t have any education at all,” says Collins. Many of the children are enrolled in local schools after receiving their Social Security cards. (All evacuees applied for Social Security cards while on military bases; almost all have arrived.)
Lutheran Services Carolinas is seeking assistance with the resettlement effort. More information is available at avl.mx/b8u.
Catholic Charities has settled 39 Afghans in the area over the past six months. The last group of evacuees managed by the nonprofit, a family being reunited in Asheville, arrived in January, Aabye says.
During the first 90 days of each evacuee’s resettlement, the charity provided intensive case management, including help with applying for benefits and getting food. The fall arrivals are becoming more independent but are still receiving some help, such as transportation to work and guidance on getting a driver’s license.
The Catholic Charities group includes 13 children, including nine who are school age, Aabye explains. These kids are enrolled in preschool through high school in the city and county school systems.
“It’s been great to see how excited they are to reconnect and get back into school after having their education interrupted so many months ago — almost a year ago for many of them,” Aabye says.
Many of the earliest arrivals have found employment in restaurants and hotels, and two have found jobs in manufacturing and two have found jobs in retail, says Aabye.
They’re also working toward getting American driver’s licenses. Three Afghans have gotten their driver’s licenses already, says Aabye. Other evacuees are scheduled to take the driving test, and a regional representative for the Department of Motor Vehicles is assisting Catholic Charities to schedule those appointments with interpreters in Pashto and Dari.
Upon their arrival in Western North Carolina, Catholic Charities immediately put the evacuees in temporary housing, including hotels, AirBnbs and private homes donated by the owners. Currently they are all living in donated private homes in Asheville and Black Mountain.
But both charities are working to transition the evacuees into longer-term housing. “It’s no secret that affordable housing in Asheville is a struggle for everybody,” says Aabye. “For our folks who are now working and looking to get into long-term housing, that is a struggle we are also helping them to navigate.”
Twenty people among the Lutheran Services Carolinas arrivals are settled into permanent housing, says Collins. The others live in temporary housing, like AirBnbs, vacation rentals and hotels. The charity is eager to place them into apartments or houses as soon as possible.
“People can’t live in hotels,” Collins says. “They need to be able to cook; they need to be able to have a more normal life.”
The evacuees’ previous financial history, or lack thereof, is proving a challenge. “Our folks have had background checks — they’ve been vetted by the State Department in order to get the status that they have before they come to Asheville,” explains Collins. “But they don’t have credit history, and sometimes that’s just a nonstarter. … A lot of landlords, we can’t get past the online application process.”
The charity is mostly working with private landlords, rather than large apartment complexes. “They’re a little more amenable to an unusual lease situation where they aren’t able to go through their usual [rental] process,” she says.
Some of the Afghan arrivals have had no exposure to English before arriving in the U.S., while others know “great conversational English,” says Aabye. One man was even embedded with the U.S. Marine Corps as a linguist.
Catholic Charities has registered 28 Afghan arrivals in A-B Tech’s English Language Acquisition program, says Amber Hollinger, the program’s coordinator. Lutheran Services Carolinas has 32 evacuees who tested into English language programs and many are starting classes this week, Collins says. The ELA program is free, and free child care is available through a partnership with the YWCA.
All classes are English immersion. The beginner classes teach the alphabet, pronunciation and letter blends. They move on to learn signage, numbers and colors, and “everyday language” that they might encounter related to their family or shopping. In the intermediate-level classes, students work on writing skills. Hollinger says the students often ask to learn more nuanced vocabulary for the workplace or communicating with their children’s teachers.
A-B Tech is offering in-person daytime and evening classes. The college is also loaning classroom space to Literacy Together, a literacy organization in Asheville, for tutoring. In total, some students are getting 15 hours of English instruction a week.
Circles of welcome
Several local faith communities and two groups of neighbors have formed Circles of Welcome — groups of volunteers that focus on individual families. For example, the St. Mark’s Circle of Welcome offers hospitality for a family of 10 with eight children ages 3-15. Parishioners are encouraged to donate household supplies, toys, art supplies and food, including naan bread, through a volunteer coordinator.
Members of the Islamic Center of Asheville, an East Asheville mosque, have been helpful with finding halal food, particularly halal meat. Volunteers have also helped connect the evacuees to Biryani Express, a Pakistani restaurant, and Andaaz, which has shared food from its Indian food buffet.
Circle of Welcome volunteers frequently give rides to the new arrivals, such as to the mosque for Friday prayers. Aabye also notes both Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools have made space available for prayer for the new Afghan students. “It’s lovely to see and makes a big difference in how welcome people feel,” she says.