116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Six months after Afghans started to arrive in Iowa following the fall of Kabul, the state has settled more of them than it initially expected. Cedar Rapids alone got twice as many as expected through the Catherine McAuley Center.
Even with significant budget cuts, agencies in Iowa resettled over 900 Afghans. As those agencies coped with a wave of humanitarian parolees in the midst of substantial challenges, how did they fare?
Stephanie Moris, director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa, recently walked The Gazette through the efforts.
Q: Previously, you told The Gazette that Iowa has been a leader in refugee resettlements since the 1970s. How has Iowa's handling of refugees over the last six months stood up to the state’s legacy for resettlement?
A: I think that Iowa’s resettlement effort of the Afghan arrivals has been very similar to all of the other refugee resettlement locations around the country. Refugee resettlement nationally had been cut during the (Trump) administration down to 15 to 25 percent of their normal operating budgets. Not 15 or 25 percent less — cut down to between 15 and 25 percent of their normal operating budgets. (Then) the national Office of Refugee Resettlement asked if they could resettle over 70,000 new arrivals in such a short amount of time.
We have 96 million people displaced in the world, 24 million of whom are refugees. Before COVID, we had less than 1 percent of those people resettled every year. And refugee camps around the world are incredibly vulnerable. In that last year alone, we lost thousands of people to weather events, to additional violence, to a lot of factors.
So when our government was looking at options of how to evacuate that many people so quickly while also keeping them safe … this was the option that kept the most amount of people safe. So for the monumental task that local resettlement agencies were asked to accomplish with such little staff and resources, (combined with) the national housing crisis, I think our state more than lived up to its legacy in refugee resettlement.
The resettling of Afghans was not regular refugee resettlement. It was termed a humanitarian crisis for a reason. I think the local agencies and the local communities on a much broader scale did an exceptional job doing well beyond what they could with what they had.
A lot of Iowa’s (success as a) leader in refugee resettlement has to do with the broad community support. Community partners and other nonprofits, and churches and individuals also deserve a lot of credit in terms of coming into a situation they may not have known a lot about. … (They’ve) really made this process work.
Q: What have the biggest challenges been for Iowa resettlement agencies since October?
A: I can’t speak for (each individual resettlement agency). I think that across the entire country, had resettlement been fully funded and fully staffed prior to the fall of the Afghan government, resettlement could’ve been a lot more efficient. I think the nationwide affordable housing crisis plays a lot into it.
Q: Statewide, has Iowa gotten a lot more Afghans than initially expected?
A: Yeah. … As with any true crisis, things changed so often, so rapidly. We have nine agencies that resettle across the country. As we (saw) the (Afghan) government fall, (there was) this swift evacuation. We airlifted more people out of Afghanistan in a two-week period than we had done in any one single setting since the fall of Saigon.
We also had countries around the world that were identifying their own capacities to take who would go where, identifying family ties of the evacuees. It was an ever-changing process. This is an example of where we use the term “humanitarian crisis“ not lightly. This was not regular reception and placement.
Q: Has this sudden influx of refugees, given the timing and challenges, tested our agencies in new ways?
A: Until resettlement is no longer necessary … the need to make sure resettlement agencies are fully funded and staffed is obviously important. With the communitywide support, when all of the different pieces of the broader-scale community puzzle work together and are … receptive to how to help, those two sides of the equation make the entire process just so much stronger.
Iowa has one of the fastest growing foreign-born, refugee immigrant populations. … If you ate during COVID, it’s probably because of a refugee or immigrant.
Q: How important is immigration to Iowa’s future?
A: I think there’s a lot of rural communities in Iowa that could attest to how foreign-born, new Iowans have saved or completely revitalized their communities. You can look at Columbus Junction, Storm Lake, Waterloo, Marshalltown, Cedar Rapids to some extent. There’s a lot of communities where there are municipalities facing their school districts collapsing but were put back together.
The contributions they make to the overall tapestry of our culture is enormous as well.
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