How Metro Detroit is preparing to welcome Afghan refugees


The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of the largest evacuations in US history, with nearly 130,000 people airlifted out of the country. At least 50,000 of them were refugees are heading to the United States.

For many, getting on a plane to Kabul is just the beginning of their challenges. Once on American soil, refugees face barriers to employment, finding housing, and the trauma that can come from culture shock. For families, there are even more complications.

Here in Detroit, however, organizations are working hard to make the transition a success. Samaritas is one of the largest refugee aid partner organizations, and the nonprofit group is committed to helping more than a quarter of the 1,300 people who come to Michigan for resettlement.

“We are going to settle 350 Afghan refugees,” says Cheryl Kohs, communications director of Samaritas. “This is the amount we signed up for, it does not guarantee that we will get all 350, and we can be asked to take more,” she said.

Kohs says the majority will be based in Southeast Michigan, with most in the Dearborn and Warren-Sterling Heights areas.

“We obviously want to settle people where they are comfortable, in order to assimilate them sooner,” says Kohs, referring to areas that have had previous success with refugee resettlement initiatives.

Samaritas runs English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for refugees in their office in Troy.

Afghan refugees aren’t the only influx Samaritas is grappling with, and the organization is trying to raise $ 430,000 by December 31 to fund its programming.

“This year we are trying to place an additional 800 to 1,000 refugees from other countries,” Kohs said. “COVID and its challenges cause that number to fluctuate. “

To expand the resources available, Samaritas works with local churches and mosques, the Jewish Community Fund, and Chaldean community groups. He also partners with ACCESS, a 50-year-old organization that helps immigrants adjust to life in Michigan. ACCESS has offices in Dearborn, Sterling Heights, Ferndale and Detroit.

One of the biggest issues Samaritas and its partners face is the shortage of housing for refugees, in part due to the moratorium on COVID-19 evictions, which has led to fewer places available for rental, according to Kohs. .

In the short term, Samaritas has found solutions. Churches and mosques have offered to welcome people, and COVID-19’s hit on the hospitality industry has opened up hotel rooms that can be used. Dormitories at local colleges may also be available.

However, these are all temporary. Permanent accommodation must be found that provides the necessities, such as functional kitchens.

Samaritas offers home placement services and also works with its partners to find additional accommodation, as well as with refugees who have already completed the program and can suggest potential accommodation.

New refugees can also receive assistance from the Wayne County Emergency Rental Assistance Program, worth $ 20 million. This program is available to homeowners and their tenants in Wayne County who have been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, are experiencing housing instability, and whose household income is equal to or less than 80% of the median household income. zone (AMI).

Samaritas offers sewing classes for Michigan refugees. Refugees have 180 days to become financially self-sufficient, so finding a job is high on the list of necessities. For many refugees, this job needs to be close to home, as they may not have access to a vehicle.

Samaritas offers job training, outreach and referral services to help find employment. Many of their partners have similar programs.

Refugees who have already moved are also an invaluable resource. Some help locate work near them and spread the word, or inquire about openings at their current place of business. Others have become entrepreneurs, have started their own businesses, and are ready to hire incoming talent.

“We have alumni who have opened up some refugees to the economy this way,” Kohs explains.

Many of those who have gone through the system also volunteer at places like Samaritas and are often chosen as mentors for newcomers. This is especially important, Kohs says, when it comes to culture shock, which is common among refugees unfamiliar with American customs or learning the language.

“The grocery stores are just overwhelming,” Kohs explains.

For Afghan citizens who have worked as translators for the US military, English is already a second language, so Samaritas plans to connect with them as a resource to help other refugees adjust.

ACCESS and local mosques are valuable partners for language resources, and in 2007 Metro Detroit had the country’s largest Arab-American population, which has helped refugees from the Middle East adjust to the region. While most will settle in the Southeast region, a few will move to western Michigan. Samaritas has been in contact with organizations across the state, providing advice and information that may be helpful.

Refugees also face potential concerns from those already living in the areas where they will be resettled, as they come from a country at war for more than two decades. Connecting with local residents is important, Kohs says.

“I ask people [in the neighborhood] about their personal history, ”says Kohs. “It’s opening their hearts to people in need. “

Like all immigrants coming to the United States, vaccinations are mandatory and Afghan citizens must meet strict conditions to be granted refugee status. “People who enter have been screened,” says Kohs, a process that includes the Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence agencies.

The 1,300 refugees arriving in Michigan are more Afghan refugees than the state has resettled in the past 10 years. Helping them assimilate into a new life isn’t going to be easy, but Samaritas and its partners believe they can rise to the challenge and help them build a new life in the Detroit metro community.

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