The weekend before last, I watched the news out of Afghanistan with a sense of dread. I heard from some of our staff, many of whom still have family in Afghanistan. They said everything is in turmoil and women are afraid to leave their homes. Then, friends in the local community started to reach out to me and together we shared painful memories of when our own families were cast into exile. I was born in Iran and came to the U.S. for university. A few months after I arrived, the Islamic Revolution in Iran broke my family apart and I did not see my mother for 5 years. Luckily, she was able to come to the United States and we slowly rebuilt our lives.
I am writing as the executive director of Refugee Women’s Alliance. ReWA was founded in 1985 by Southeast Asian women who felt isolated when they came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. They vowed that future refugees to the Puget Sound would have a place to learn English, find jobs and be empowered to rebuild their lives. So they created and sustained that.
We were all stunned by the lightning speed of the Taliban advance and how quickly provincial capitals came under their control. Experts will surely debate for years how this happened, but the reality is that Afghanistan is heavily dependent on foreign aid — it makes up some 40% of the national budget. And 90% of the population live below the poverty line.
Undoubtedly, there will be many political and military maneuvers in the coming weeks and months. On that front, I believe the international community has a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan to provide robust humanitarian assistance: for food, shelter and COVID protections.
Closer to home, there is more the United States should do. We as Americans have a special responsibility to the Afghans who partnered with us for 20 years, risking their lives for their country. These Afghan women and men worked alongside U.S. and NATO forces and with nonprofit groups and aid agencies in the hopes their efforts would create a safe home for their families. But for now, those hopes look dashed, potentially leaving them in immediate danger.
That is why I echo U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s call to the State Department to swiftly expand and expedite Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans and grant temporary protected status to Afghans residing in the U.S. We should also create a special “humanitarian parole category” for Afghan women leaders, human rights activists and other public figures, as requested by 46 U.S. senators.
And finally, we must immediately lift the cap on Afghan refugees. If we do this, we can start to restore our nation’s proud tradition of being a refuge for people caught in conflict zones, when conditions make repatriation impossible.
ReWA stands together with local resettlement service providers who are the first responders in this refugee crisis: the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, World Relief, the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, Jewish Family Services and others. They all deserve your support. They are working to provide immediate housing and short-term assistance to new arrivals.
Just like so many past generations of American citizens, this wave of refugees and asylees bring their talents, dedication and love for freedom and democracy with them. With time, they will become our teachers, doctors, community leaders and neighbors.
Many people don’t realize that most refugees are only allotted three months of financial support when they arrive. Then they must be able to support themselves. That is where ReWA steps in. Here, refugees and immigrants learn English, prepare for the job market, receive immigration and housing assistance, have help to enroll their kids in school, attend citizenship classes and, if needed, can access counseling and domestic violence support services, often in their native language.
ReWA has been active in the Puget Sound region for more than 35 years. We have served waves of refugees escaping conflict from all over the world, including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, East Africa, Burma and now, again, from Afghanistan. Our Pashto- and Dari-speaking staff are ready to provide support during this adjustment period.
As a nation, having a coherent and welcoming policy to immigrants and refugees is, as the Dalai Lama might say, “wisely selfish.” When we help others find refuge, and then help them thrive again, we are indeed helping ourselves.
Mahnaz Eshetu is the executive director of Refugee Women’s Alliance, which has five locations in King County. ReWA’s 150 staff speak over 50 languages and dialects and deliver bilingual and bicultural services to help clients learn English and job-related skills, find employment, maintain stability and eventually thrive in their adoptive country.
Read more of the Aug. 25-31, 2021 issue.