Welcoming Afghan Refugees

As Afghans make central Iowa their home, there are plenty of ways you can help support them.

Writer: Hannah Soyer 

Some 40,000 refugees have settled in Iowa since the mid-1970s, and when the Afghan government fell last August, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the state would welcome residents from the country. 

As of press time, 692 Afghans had been resettled in Central Iowa, with roughly 1,000 more expected to arrive here. Stephanie Moris, director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa (RACI), said the estimate is fluid, as changing conditions could mean vastly different numbers. 

“This is not regular refugee resettlement,” Moris says. “This is a humanitarian crisis with refugee resettlement.” 

The majority of Afghans resettling in the U.S. are part of the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program or possess Special Immigrant Visas. The APA allows for expedited authorization to work, while SIVs are given to Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. About half of the Afghans coming through resettlement agencies in Central Iowa arrive with family members, while the other half are on their own. Many still have family in their home country. 

Greater Des Moines has three refugee resettlement agencies: Catholic Charities of Des Moines; the Des Moines office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; and Lutheran Services in Iowa. These agencies help with the following, all of which need to happen within 90 days, the length of formal resettlement services: 

  • Finding housing and employment. 
  • Addressing medical concerns. 
  • Getting children enrolled in school. 
  • Applying for public benefits. 
  • Learning the public transportation system. 
  • Finding English classes and referrals to other organizations. 

“Ninety days is a very short amount of time to work with clients in helping them become self-sufficient,” says Kelyn Anker, refugee services program manager at Catholic Charities of Des Moines. 

There also are organizations that help post-resettlement, including EMBARC (see here). During formal resettlement and after, the major barriers are related to language and inaccessibility of services. “Currently, our systems are not set up for people who don’t speak English,” EMBARC’s Executive Director Henny Ohr says. 

She explains that many people often assume translation is all that’s needed, but that having a translator present at a doctor’s appointment, for example, doesn’t address the unfamiliarity with the ways services are set up for someone from a different culture. Something many of us find simple, such as picking up a prescription, poses challenges with language, logistics, technology and more. Newly settled refugees need “a continuum of care,” Ohr says. 

3 Ways to Help

RACI, Catholic Charities and LSI all rely on community support as they help Afghans resettle. Find options for giving your money, belongings or time. 

1. Donate money to resettlement agencies and organizations so they can purchase needed household items, food and clothing for refugees. In addition, the Chrysalis Foundation has set up an Amazon wish list for women refugees; undergarments are especially needed. For a link to the list, go to chrysalisfnd.org. 

2. Provide home essentials such as furniture (sofas, dining and coffee tables, chairs) as well as kitchen goods such as pots, pans and mixing bowls. 

3. Volunteer to help with services such as setting up apartments, sorting donations, teaching basic Western culture, and training how to ride the bus. Find more information on each agency’s website.

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