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Here's What Is Going On With Afghan Refugees In Iowa

Afghan refugees line up for food in a dining hall at Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Village, in New Mexico, where they are being housed, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. The Biden administration provided the first public look inside the U.S. military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened, amid questions about how the government is caring for the refugees and vetting them.
David Goldman
Afghan refugees line up for food in a dining hall at Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Village, in New Mexico, where they are being housed, earlier this month. The Biden administration provided the first public look inside the U.S. military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are screened, amid questions about how the government is caring for the refugees and vetting them.

There's so much going on concerning Afghan refugees and still a lot of unknowns. Here's a rundown on what the state is said to expect and how Iowans can help.

Who will be coming to Iowa?
The state's refugee resettlement agencies will still be accepting their already-scheduled arrivals on top of an additional number of Afghan refugees.

Most of the arrivals from Afghanistan will be humanitarian parolees, according to Bureau Chief of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services Mak Suceska. The Bureau is within the state's Department of Human Services.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defines someone on humanitarian parole as an individual who was temporarily brought to the U.S. (who would have otherwise been inadmissible to the country) because of an emergency in their country of origin. Most are at risk in Afghanistan for religious, political, cultural or a combination of reasons.

"These are individuals who have not received SIV designation, who may or may not have been in the SIV process, or who may have not worked with United States military and who arrived directly from Afghanistan, essentially picked their things up, got on an airplane, arrived to a military base here in the United States and were processed for certain legal status," Suceska explained.

A Special Immigration Visa (SIV) is reserved for people who assisted the U.S. military. A translator/interpreter fits this description. They are legal permanent residents and have a five-year wait period for citizenship. Those on humanitarian parole, as of now, do not have a time limit associated with their stay in the U.S.

"With respect to resettlement and where we are today, our world has really turned upside down, for lack of a better phrase, these last four years. And continuing forward with the next four years, will look drastically different for resettlement," Suceska said. "Highlighting the Afghan crisis is just a piece of, really, the ever-changing resettlement landscape as we will continue to see it going forward."

Both SIV recipients and humanitarian parolees receive medical checks, background checks and other screenings.

When will they come?

Currently one five-member family from Afghanistan has resettled in the state after the Taliban took control of government. They completed their SIV status before moving to Ankeny.

The majority of the others, Suceska said, are expected to come this month and into early October. Subsequently, Iowa will see a steady flow of arrivals.

How many will come?

This is the thing we don't yet have a specific number for.

"As a state, you know, we will be resettling a lot more than initially anticipated. The number does fluctuate very quickly, I would say, and very persistently. It's a fluid situation, and it could change on a dime here in the next 24 hours," Suceska said.

Each resettlement agency in Iowa has submitted the number they can accommodate to their national organizations.

The Des Moines office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is generally the largest resettlement organization in the state. Des Moines Field Office Director Kerri True-Funk said the city is looking at about 125 Afghan refugees in addition to their already-scheduled arrivals.

"But that may change. Like Mak said earlier, the numbers are very fluid. It will end up you know how many people end up on the [military] bases and then processes out," she said. That number has changed within the month. In a previous interview with IPR, True-Funk estimated the number to be closer to 350.

"They don't back terrorists, and they don't believe in harming individuals here in the United States. They just want a safe place to raise their kids and have their families and be part of it," she clarified.

Sara Zejnic, the director of Refugee & Immigrant Services for the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids, said many refugees prefer to resettle close to their agency.

"We are working diligently to meet the needs of the rest of the more traditional refugees that have been arriving in increasing numbers," she said. "But also working to make sure we have the right connections in place and systems and processes ready to accept and support Afghans that may or may not be eligible for as many services or as many benefits."

On a national level, the Biden administration has announced the U.S. will accept 125,000 refugees and their families next year. The specific number of refugees from Afghanistan to be accepted is still unclear, but it will most likely be in the thousands. True-Funk cited the U.S. has evacuated roughly 60,000 Afghan nationals—which have been split among military bases and other countries. She estimated about 10,000 have arrived to their final destinations in the U.S.

What do they get once they're here?

The humanitarian parolees will be eligible for certain benefits and an assistance program to Afghans (APA) once they arrive in Iowa. But, Suceska clarified, those benefits will be limited to the scope and capacity of resettlement agencies.

"The challenge that the community will face, and really a hurdle that we will face, in working with APA humanitarian parolees is really on the benefit side post-the 90 day services that have been explicitly designated for for these individuals" Suceska said. "After the 90 days, it is yet to be determined what kind of benefits and services people may receive."

He said there areefforts on a federal level to improve and add more funding to those benefits.

SIV recipients have full access to benefits, like other refugees admitted under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They can continue to receive those benefits for up to eight months after coming to the country.

How can I help?

Refugee service providers said the easiest way to find ways to help is by going to their websites.

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services
Catherine McAuley Center Refugee & Immigrant Services
Catholic Charities Resettlement Services
Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa

They urge people to have patience when waiting to hear back from the agencies, as most of them are overwhelmed with the support they've received. So it will take time to answer inquiries. Making financial donations or donating household/clothing items is another great way to help, they said.

In addition, most agencies are looking for people who can help interpret in Pashto or Dari (both languages dominant in Afghanistan).

There are also other support organizations that are accepting donations to help with refugee services. Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI) hosts its 'Empower Dinner' every year. The tenth anniversary will be on Saturday, Sept. 25. Their new focus is raising extra funds in anticipation of the influx of Afghan refugees coming to the state.

“We've had numerous calls from congregations, from individuals from businesses, how can we help? What do you need? The short answer is we don't know yet. We're still waiting to hear," Nancy Strutzenberg, the director of philanthropy for LSI’s Refugee and Immigrant Services, said.

She said that's why it's important agencies have extra funds in their back pockets.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines