116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — With nothing more than the clothes on their back, a duffle bag of belongings and hope for a new future after escaping the Taliban’s grip, Afghan refugees have begun arriving at The Eastern Iowa Airport.
Last Friday, Zia Zikhail and Shakil Safi were the fifth and sixth refugees from Afghanistan to arrive in Cedar Rapids since the Taliban’s rapid takeover in August, according to the Catherine McAuley Center. Two more, a father and son, arrived Saturday. The first new Afghan refugee arrived here Oct. 16.
If the nonprofit’s capacity estimate for Afghan refugees from October holds true, Cedar Rapids can expect 117 more over the next fiscal year. That’s in addition to 300 refugees from other countries the center already volunteered to help before the latest crisis mounted in the Middle East.
With little information to go on other than a name, case managers await each arrival, watching for the distinctive bag that identifies each refugee — a plastic International Organization for Migration bag given to each arrival. Case worker Celestin Ndagije recognized it immediately as the same bag he received when he came from Rwanda 25 years ago — one of the first articles of freedom refugees tout upon arrival.
The first steps to Iowa
Having little more than a name, birth date, language spoken and information about a refugee’s family or friends in the area, the Catherine McAuley Center first evaluates whether it can accept a request for resettlement from federal authorities. Typically, the center receives one to three weeks notice ahead of travel plans; but sometimes less. Much advance notification is unlikely for Afghan refugees, according to Sara Zejnic, director of refugee and immigrant services at the nonprofit.
With the nature of the Afghanistan government’s quick collapse, the process for Afghan refugees is “ever-changing and fluid,” according to Stephanie Moris, director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa.
“Iowa has been a leader in refugee resettlements since the 1970s,” she said. “For the most part, our resettlement agencies feel very welcome to new Iowans.”
Before these refugees arrive, they are processed at military bases throughout the country or overseas. Zikhail recently spent weeks at a base in New Mexico, for example. Many are sent to cities in which they have families or friends. Those without ties in the country are assigned a location. After refugees step off their last flight, they are settled into their new home cities through organizations like the Catherine McAuley Center, which are contracted by the federal government.
This year, there are some challenges and changes to navigate — housing being perhaps the biggest one.
“We’re fully aware that housing stock in Cedar Rapids is extremely low after the derecho,” Zejnic said. “We’re trying to balance that support we’re providing to Afghans who are entering the community with knowing there are people who really need housing in our community as it is.”
To help with that, a rule that typically limits agencies to housing refugees within a 50 to 100 mile radius of their office has been lifted, clearing the way for housing and employment opportunities in smaller towns outside the metro are like Fairfield and Muscatine. Zejnic said the organization has been having conversations with those communities to ensure successful placement.
“We can readily find one- and two-bedrooms, but not a ton of three- and four-bedroom apartments,” said Kerri True-Funk, field office director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Des Moines. That often presents a challenge for multigenerational families or families with several children.
This year, the Des Moines organization has volunteered to take 125 refugees. By comparison, it has settled 112 Afghans since 2014.
“This process is a little outside the norm,” True-Funk said.
Some Afghan arrivals may be classified as “humanitarian parolees” instead of refugees, which in the past had limited the help available to them. Because of a resolution passed through Congress and signed Oct. 1 by President Joe Biden, humanitarian parolees now can receive access to the same programs and services as refugees, like employment training, case management and temporary assistance benefits.
“Our job is to create that foundation for a successful life in the United States,” Zejnic said. “Our preference is to get people as self-sufficient as quickly as possible.”
With a tight labor market in Iowa, she anticipates Afghans will be welcomed by businesses searching for workers.
One of the largest limiting factors in determining an agency’s capacity to resettle refugees is the number of case managers available.
True-Funk said the number of case managers drastically shrunk with historically large budget cuts to refugee programming under the Trump administration. In 2016, the Des Moines agency had five case managers. By summer, it was down to one before that was increased to three.
“We’ll be recruiting soon for increased staffing to provide support to that (population,)” Zejnic said.
With a majority of Cedar Rapids refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, she said Afghans will diversify the local immigrant population.
Finding bipartisan support
After a wane of bipartisan support for refugees in recent years, refugee resettlement leaders in Iowa are finding a window of opportunity to rebuild support for those seeking a new life as Americans.
“Afghans helped U.S. military members,” Zejnic said. “It bridged the political divide a bit more. The resettlement program has, for a long time, received bipartisan support.”
She noticed a wane in support after the Syrian refugee crisis came to the forefront of news in 2015. But after the dramatic decline in support, she said leaders are hoping Afghans can get U.S. refugee program back on track.
“That is certainly my goal and the sentiment of conversations I’ve had with other resettlement partners across the country,” she said. “This is an opportunity to seize the support of more business leaders, landlords, and lay the foundation for building bipartisan support of our program.”
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