116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — After the fall of Kabul last summer, thousands fled the only home they knew as Afghanistan came under the Taliban’s grip.
The first started to arrive in Cedar Rapids in October. By the end of January, a little more than 200 had arrived in Cedar Rapids. Now, there’s nearly 250 — twice as many as originally anticipated in November.
As the world’s eyes shift to the next humanitarian crisis with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, case managers and advocacy specialists like Caleb Gates at the Catherine McAuley Center continue to help Iowa’s new neighbors settle in their first few months here.
From employment and housing to documentation, cultural orientation and language classes, rebuilding life in a new country can be a daunting process.
“The goal of the program is to, as much as possible within that first 90 days, help the client become self-sufficient and independent. And that’s a challenge for someone who’s coming from a completely different culture, may not speak the language,” said Gates. “All the things that we just do on an everyday basis that we don’t even think about … it’s going to be a lot more of a challenge for people (for whom) this is a new experience.”
Q: Roughly how many Afghans have arrived since last fall? What does this group look like?
A: “We were assigned 250, so all of those have arrived. There’s a small number that have out-migrated to a different state, but almost all of those are here. North of 240.
“We’ll potentially get more in the future. It will not be nearly the number it was before. There’s going to be a second wave coming from the U.S. from what they call lily pad countries. (Some) were taken out of Afghanistan and put in some other countries around the Middle East for processing. Some will eventually be coming to the U.S.
“ (Many are) not coming here (to be near) established family. A lot of them, this is the first time they’ve even heard of Iowa. They’ve heard of Texas or California, New York or Chicago, but they haven’t heard of Iowa before. There’s a lot that don’t speak English, but some do.
“There are a lot of single guys. When I say single, some may be married and have kids in Afghanistan. But we also had a good mixture of families with sizes from three and four all the way up to 12.”
Q: What are some common first jobs for them?
A: “It’s been primarily manufacturing or some going to meatpacking plants. That type of thing. Jobs where there’s not necessarily a lot of English (required.) Some of those companies have been able to hire someone from the population who speaks more English to facilitate what they need to know for those jobs.
“There are a number of different companies we’re working with to arrange transportation (for out of town job locations).”
Q: What’s the status of housing for many of them?
A: “We’ve already moved quite a few families into permanent housing. One bottleneck we’re facing is we only have capacity to move a certain number of families per week.”
Q: What are some of the challenges unique to settling Afghans?
A: “Some of them are still waiting for their documents, even (after) three months, so there’s some (program) extension of when we can complete things.
“There are some challenges for those who were not able to learn in their own language in their country how to read or write. It’s not that they didn’t want to, they just never had the opportunity.
“There’s definitely a different dynamic with (family arrivals), especially with the cultural experience and expectations with gender roles in Afghanistan. It tends to be very segregated between male and female. That is more of a challenge when trying to interact with females, because they basically don’t interact with males outside of their family.
“The female clients are more reluctant to go to medical appointments if their husband’s not there, or they wouldn’t want to ride in a car with a male staff member if their husband’s not with them.
“The primary languages they speak are Pashto and Dari. There are very few native Pashto and Dari speakers here in town. There are a couple of our clients we’ve been able to hire who speak English very well and also speak Pashto and Dari. … That’s been very helpful for not just the language but the culture.
“This is a new population for us. We have quite a bit of experience among our staff working with refugees, but this is a new population so there’s some unique challenges that come with that.”
Q: What do they love about Iowa?
A: “They have commented about how nice the people are here. They feel welcome.”
Q: What's something you've learned from our new Afghan neighbors?
A: “Hospitality is a very important part of who they are and a very important part of their culture. It’s very common for them, if I take them to an appointment and take them home, to want me to stay and have tea with them.
“Sometimes if I’m not able to stay … they won’t let me leave without taking a pop or energy drink or something. For them, it’s just a way of expressing hospitality and showing they’re grateful for what we’re doing for them.
“It’s very heartening to see how in spite of the challenge and difficulties, that’s still important to them. Even if it’s just a drink.”
Q: What is the Catherine McAuley Center anticipating in the future with Afghan arrivals in terms of how many will arrive and what policies might affect them?
A: “It’s possible we could get more. It would not be at the level we’ve received. The numbers are unclear at this point. The total number of Afghans coming to the country will be a set amount per year on average.
“Locally, we’re not sure how many we’ll get. We expect we’ll see more, but we’re waiting to hear. From the looks of it, it sounds like it won’t be nearly the amount we got (this year). Maybe dozens.
“As far as policy changes, there’s some legislation in Congress that would be very helpful if Congress were to pass it. The Afghan Adjustment Act is one of the names the legislation goes under.
"Because of how quickly things happened, (Afghans who came) entered the U.S. under humanitarian parole, which is not a permanent status. What that means is, unlike a refugee … they have to apply for a different status. Either asylum or Special Immigrant Visa.
“That was a status granted to people from Afghanistan and Iraq working with the U.S. military asking to come to the U.S. because they’re in danger. A lot of these cases were brought here for that very reason.
“But that’s a long process. The Afghan Adjustment Act would basically change it so those Afghans who came in under humanitarian parole could apply directly for a green card without having to apply for another status first.
“The status they came with only lasts two years. They’re concerned they’re going to have to go back after that point. We’re trying to communicate … that (immigration) is a process and it takes time.
“That’s something we encourage people to talk to their representatives about.”
Q: What have been the biggest joys for you about working with this group of people?
A: “I’ve worked with refugees in various capacities for 11 years now. I’ve worked with a variety of populations. … Like a lot of other clients, they’re a population who was forced into some desperate circumstances.
“In some way, them coming to this country (is like becoming) children and babies. You’re basically helpless. My job is to guide them to the place where they can do things on their own. A big joy for me is to see clients we’ve helped who are starting to be able to do things on their own.”
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