Austin Begins to Aid Refugees: From Afghanistan to Austin, Refugees Begin Resettling

Fiona Kleeman, Staff Writer

Due to recent violence in Afghanistan caused by the Taliban, many refugees are migrating to other countries like the U.S. in search of asylum and job opportunities, according to the New York Times. The Taliban is a political group and military organization that has taken over Afghanistan, and branches in Pakistan known as the Tehrik-e Taliban are classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. 

Neil Loewenstern has been teaching contemporary issues and world geography since 2002. He believes the U.S. could have handled the situation better by spreading out the exit process over a couple of years, as well believing that the government should be doing more to help fund resettlement.

“I’ve been teaching quite a bit about it all year long,” Loewenstern said. “Contemporary issues, which is a foreign policy class, has focused very heavily on the crisis in Afghanistan, as well as world geography class to talk about current events every day.”

Thousands of Afghans were trying to flee the country and catch a flight at the Kabul Airport, according to the BBC. In a viral photo taken by U.S. Airforce Captain Chris Herbert, approximately 640 Afghan refugees were aboard a C-17 military plane flying to the U.S. Refugee services, such as Refugee Services of Texas (RST), have been working with new refugees to get them through the tough transition, according to RST spokesperson Chris Kelley. When working with refugees, Kelley says that many do not realize the experience that many go through when relocating. 

“I don’t mean to be snarky, but I do encourage others to think about having to leave everything you’ve ever known — your home, your school, your job, family members, the food, the climate, etc., because you were forced to move because your life was no longer safe,” Kelley said.  

Kelley says support is needed for refugees coming to the United States. RST helps families by offering a variety of services, like enrolling children in schools.

“After arrival, RST helps refugees to start their lives in the U.S.,” Kelley said. “Assisting them with applying for a social security card, registering children in school, learning how to access shopping facilities, arranging medical appointments, and connecting them with needed social or language services.”

Former RST employee Lilo Pomerleau has a different view on how they handle things. She says RST tries to assist refugees in too short of a timespan, which is determined based on the status a refugee is given.

“RST generally provides assistance to the family for six months,” Pomerleau said. “This is a ridiculously short period of time. Canada helps for a year.”

Loewenstern also mentioned that he himself has begun to get involved with helping welcome refugees through his synagogue. RST works with other faith organizations to help refugees through welcoming committees, according to Loewenstern.

“There are organizations out there that are actively helping, especially here in Austin and Refugee Services of Texas, and I’m involved through my Jewish synagogue in Israel, and they’re the ones who have been their welcoming committees,” Loewenstern said. “The refugee services of Texas works with some of that through faith based organizations. So, if anybody’s looking to get involved, there are ways to do that here in Austin.”

According to RST, they rely on volunteers during those first three to six months. They  help set up and find homes for the refugees to live in, and according to Pomerleau, some even keep in contact with the families they work with. 

“I am still in contact and help my family from time to time,” Pomerleau said. “They have been here for more than three years. I have helped them move to different apartments; it is very difficult to find cheap apartments. They are located in not so nice areas. There is usually a requirement that they don’t earn too much money to qualify for a low rent apartment.”

According to Kelley, one of the main struggles that Afghanistan refugees have when coming to the U.S. is learning English. He says refugees can be taught the language over time, but RST is in need of translators when they first come to sort out their legal status and employment.

“Although volunteers for RST and other refugee support organizations can teach individual refugees basic English conversation skills over time, refugees still need immediate assistance with interpretation and translation services as they work out their legal status and  employment,” Kelley said. “RST, along with other community organizations, helps refugees with translation and interpretation, relying on volunteers to use their dual language skills to help those who are still learning English.”

In the first phase of resettlement, Texas is expected to take in the second most amount of Afghan refugees with 4.5 thousand out of 37 thousand, which is around 12%. Some states are doing less by only taking in ten individual refugees, while some states aren’t taking any, according to KUT. 

“Well, there definitely needs to be quite a bit of government funding,” Loewenstern said. “There’s different classifications as refugees and parolees, and that gives them a certain amount of funding for a certain amount of time. And so that’s kind of an issue.”

According to Kelley, organizations like RST have recently become busier as Austin takes in more refugees. But Kelley also noted that he has hopes for many of the families as RST works to provide permanent housing and citizenship for families using their services.

“More than 75% of refugees to the U.S. become independent Americans,” Kelley said. “After which, they are subject to about the same rates of success as every native-born citizen, becoming homeowners at about the same rate and remaining employed at about the same rate. They own businesses, pay taxes, and succeed as contributing members of society, just like everyone else.”