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Refugee Resettlement Agencies Prepare For Afghan Evacuees

In this Aug. 22, 2021, file photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
MSgt. Donald R. Allen
U.S. Air Force via AP File
In this Aug. 22 file photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, Afghan passengers board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Refugee resettlement agencies in Iowa are preparing for more refugees who evacuated Afghanistan last month.

The Des Moines office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) has already resettled one family. USCRI is keeping their information undisclosed out of consideration of their family connections still in Afghanistan.

After consulting with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services (a part of the Department of Human Services) and other resettlement agencies, USCRI officials said they expect their capacity to stretch to about 350 more Afghan refugees. That's on top of scheduled arrivals from other countries.

But Kerri True-Funk, USCRI director, said that 350 number is subject to change. It can depend on allied countries accepting refugees and other developments within the country itself. So it's the "current capacity, not forever capacity."

“We haven't started getting the bulk of people that were airlifted out at this point. They are still in processing. So we're kind of seeing how it goes along and playing it by ear to see how quickly those folks come and where our numbers actually end up," she said.

And that "current capacity" is already pretty overwhelming for the agency, according to True-Funk. To put in in perspective, she said USCRI had initially estimated about 40 Afghan arrivals for the year.

"So it's not, you know, something new for us. It would be an increase over the current capacity," she explained.

USCRI has 35 non-Afghan individuals scheduled for arrival in Des Moines this month. That includes 18 people by Wednesday. The estimated 350 Afghan arrivals would be additional to these numbers.

True-Funk said USCRI has received an outpour of support from many Iowans, including the governor’s office.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said the state would welcome Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant visas. "We want them here," she said at a news conference at the Iowa State Fair.

Reynolds, who has previously said Iowa would not accept unaccompanied children who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, said the situation with Afghan evacuees is a different process.

Sen. Joni Ernst has also offered her support for accepting Afghan refugees.

And USCRI is doing its best to account for this support.

“We're going to get overwhelmed pretty quickly, just with the number of ongoing arrivals that we have, in addition to Afghan folks," True-Funk said.

The people who will arrive from Afghanistan, True-Funk said, have much less than other arrivals. Many have been advised to leave the country without bulky luggage and only what they can carry.

True-Funk said USCRI has seen an outpour of Iowans hoping to help. She advised people to be patient when waiting for a response due to the small number of employees. The staff had shrunk considerably during the low refugee resettlement numbers during the Trump administration and pandemic restrictions.

It has been really tremendous. Everybody from the business community, to the governor's office, to our longtime donors, and our community allies are really on board for helping Afghan folks find [a] safe livelihood here in Iowa," True-Funk said. "And be able to, you know, move forward with their lives and hopefully get some support to heal from the trauma of living through such a long military engagement."

Since that is the case, she said the best way to help right now is through cash donations on the website. When people choose to direct their donation to refugees and immigrants in Iowa, those funds go directly to the USCRI office in Des Moines.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines