Michigan groups prepare for Afghan refugees

Michigan's refugee resettlement organizations are preparing to help at-risk Afghans as dramatic evacuations out of their country grow increasingly perilous and President Biden on Sunday said it remained "a dangerous operation." 

Afghans have been fleeing their country in a scene that has captured international attention as the Taliban took control of the country in the past week. Many Afghans who have helped Americans in the 20-year war have sought asylum, fearful of the Taliban's rule.

"Michigan has been an incredibly welcoming state, and we're grateful that we're able to serve refugees and our Afghan allies in partnership with the community," said Nate Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs at Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services.

Afghan citizens pack inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as they are transported from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on  Aug. 15.

The organizations said they don't know how many refugees they'll be getting or when they will arrive. Samaritas, a Detroit-based nonprofit, said they are evaluating communities where the Afghan refugees might go. They are looking at public and private offerings, access to transportation and affordable housing.

Bethany is one of a handful of organizations preparing to meet the likely tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who will come to the U.S. The organizations are increasing staffing, looking for community partners,  scouring for more funds and attempting to secure housing.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday that the state is preparing to welcome refugee families but is waiting on information from the U.S. Department of State.  She said groups across the state are waiting to help refugees.

"We have a rich history of multiculturalism — from the Dutch who settled in the West, to the Finns who mined the North, to the Middle-Easterners who made Dearborn a flourishing center for Arab culture, and countless others who make us who we are," Whitmer said in a statement. "People from around the world have come to Michigan over centuries for good-paying jobs, a high-quality education for their kids and the right to live and worship freely."

The Taliban took control of country of 38 million within days, outpacing U.S. estimates that the government would remain in control for about three months after the U.S. withdrew troops.

The takeover has created chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where Americans and Afghans wait for flights out of the country.

Census data from 2019 indicates that about 668 people born in Afghanistan live in Michigan. That's about one-half of 1% of the total Afghan-born population living in the U.S.

The U.S. government has accelerated the evacuations but a week after the takeover, Biden said the airport remains vulnerable to threats by the Islamic State extremist group. President Biden, who has been widely criticized but remained firm in his decisions to move U.S. military out of the country, said this week that personnel would remain on the ground to ensure any American who wanted to leave could.

In an address to the nation Sunday from the White House, Biden asserted, without a full explanation, that U.S. forces have managed to improve access to the airport for Americans and others. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone.”

Biden said 11,000 people had been airlifted from Kabul over the weekend. The number appeared to include flights by charter and non-U.S. military aircraft as well as the U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 transport planes.

A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command provides fresh water to a child during an evacuation at the airport n Kabul on Saturday. The airport has been the scene of chaos and danger, with a crush of people awaiting a chance for being airlifted out of the country.

Some Afghans have secured visas and left the country. Bethany already resettled one Afghan translator and his family, who was on one of the last commercial flights on Aug. 14. They arrived in Michigan on Monday. 

But others likely will have to wait while their visa applications remain in limbo. Average wait times for a Special Immigration Visa, which would be a common choice for translators and other Afghans who helped the U.S., has an average wait time of 658 days, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Afghans who fled without visas typically will go to a third-party country in agreement with the U.S. or to military bases across the U.S.  

Bult said Bethany has lobbied the Biden administration to grant humanitarian parole, which would allow those waiting for a determination to work in the U.S.

Bethany and Samaritas have found finding affordable housing for refugees difficult. The one-time refugee grants from the federal government often do not go very far, said Mihaela Mitrofan, Samaritas' director.

"What we know is that we need urgent help to give them the hero's welcome that they deserve," Mitrofan said of the refugees. "When they arrive, we expect that many of them will have little more than the clothes on their backs — no money, nowhere to stay, nothing to eat. So with the support of the community, we can help get them on their feet."

Meeting the potential surge of refugees has meant Samaritas has began looking at long-term-stay hotels and short-term rentals. The organization also has been hiring more case managers, case aides and drivers.

Beyond housing, the organization aims to help secure transportation, food and gift cards for refugees. Samaritas often looks to volunteers and financial donations to support that work.

Last year, 19 immigrant children separated from their families at the U.S. southern border were placed in Michigan by the federal government. The children are placed with Samaritas or Bethany Christian Services until a sponsor family was identified to temporarily or permanently house them.

From fiscal year 2012 through 2018, Michigan was the fourth largest state in the country to accept refugees, behind Texas, California and New York. The number of refugees resettling in Michigan has declined 86% since fiscal year 2016, according to 2019 reports.

It can be difficult at first for refugees, Mitrofan and Bult said, for newcomers who don't speak English and may not know anyone in the country. Bult said the organizations will aim to alleviate challenges for the refugees.

"They need a bit of help initially, but being refugees, this is just a small step in the journey. They will become new Americans," Mitrofan said.

"They are seeking to learn the language and the culture and become U.S. citizens and contribute to the fabric of our community and to the local economy," she said. "They become taxpayers and they open businesses, they purchase homes, they spend. Once they get on their feet, they just enjoy life. That's such a beautiful gift."

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers and the Associated Press contributed to this report.