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Local organizations are preparing to resettle Afghan refugees. Here’s what you can do to help.

This story originally appeared in The Columbia Missourian. Read the full story online: Columbia Missourian Website

As President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline looms for completing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, local agencies are looking at next steps and how to help Afghan evacuees who may soon find themselves in mid-Missouri. 

“I don’t know how many people we will actually end up resettling,” said Sam Moog, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri. “But I know that we very likely are going to resettle Afghan refugees here as soon as September.” 

As the only agency in mid-Missouri authorized to resettle refugees through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, staff at Catholic Charities has been preparing for weeks to receive and aid those coming from Afghanistan.

Staff members have been talking with community groups about co-sponsoring refugees, meeting with members of the small mid-Missouri Afghan community and coordinating volunteer efforts. 

“This is an emergency situation. It’s something we’re preparing for, and it’s unfolding as we speak,” Moog said, emphasizing that all these efforts are happening in addition to the work they do every day to help other refugee populations in Columbia and mid-Missouri.

City of Refuge is another community group that works with refugees. Unlike Catholic Charities, they aren’t part of the US refugee admission program.  Instead, they provide certain services and programs to people who have already been resettled, such as counseling and financial literacy assistance. 

City of Refuge is also preparing for a possible influx of Afghan refugees and is in contact with Catholic Charities to stay updated on the situation. 

“We don’t have a timeframe of when they would be in Columbia, nor how many,” Debbie Beal, executive director of City of Refuge, wrote in an email. “(S)o until we know that information we are waiting and working hard to serve the folks currently in our community.”

From Afghanistan to mid-Mo

More than 100,000 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan since Aug. 1, many of whom were evacuated after the Taliban takeover Aug. 15. The world has since been gripped by photos of packed airports and overrun tarmacs, as well as news of two explosions last week that killed more than 100 people at Kabul’s airport, including 13 U.S. service members. 

According to Moog, once someone is airlifted and brought to the U.S., they’re processed at one of several U.S. forts, where they receive medical screening and basic documentation. That processing can take anywhere between a week and a month, after which refugees are resettled across the country.

This is where Catholic Charities steps in, greeting refugees at the airport, preparing housing and providing initial financial and employment assistance, among other services. The organization also receives federal funds to help support refugees for up to five years after arrival. 

Once resettled, this is also where City of Refuge could offer services in addition to Catholic Charities’ efforts, such as professional development or school navigation. 

“We consider ourselves to be needs-based, which means that as the needs develop among refugees, we will try hard to meet those needs,” Beal wrote.

Paula Herrera-Gudiño, program assistant at Catholic Charities, is on standby for deployment to one of the U.S. forts to help process Afghan refugees. She was selected by the organization’s national-level sponsoring agency, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the U.S. Department of State.

There, she said she’ll likely help process paperwork because of her background in immigration law. As the daughter of immigrants, Herrera-Gudiño said the situation is “very close to (her) heart” and that she’s taking it both seriously and personally.

“(Deployment) gives me an opportunity to connect with so many different kinds of people,” she said. “I’d like to kind of reach out and just be able to offer a little bit of comfort in a time of need for somebody.”

Herrera-Gudiño signed up for a two- to three-week deployment and is now just waiting for the call that will let her know where she’s headed. She said she’s been glued to her phone, just waiting for “the ding.”

“I’m waiting, which means I kind of always have a bag half-packed,” Herrera-Gudiño said. “I’m very excited, but I think I’ll be more excited when the bag is zipped, I’m on the plane and it feels real.”

What you can do to help

While both organizations have been doing preparations of their own, both Moog and Beal said they’ve seen an increase in people from the mid-Missouri community wondering “How can I help?”. 

“At first, it’s been our regular partners. … It started there,” Moog said. “But now, it’s broadening, and we’re getting a lot more people (reaching out) who we’ve not necessarily ever worked with before.”

And that’s good, Moog said, because community assistance will be key to welcoming incoming refugees.

“We need a lot of volunteers. We need people who can move furniture; we need people who can teach people how to ride the bus,” Moog said. “We need interpreters, and we need funding. This is going to be a big community effort, and we need that support.”

Individuals and groups interested in volunteering can visit Catholic Charities’ “Welcoming Afghan Refugees” landing page, where visitors can fill out a volunteer form that will match their skills to different volunteer positions.

Transportation and meal preparation are listed as possible options, as well as things like helping refugees find jobs or enroll their kids in school. The form also allows applicants to list their availability — 24/7, weekdays, nights or weekends.

“If people are feeling like, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ … well, you can learn about refugee resettlement in your own community, and you can actually get involved in refugee resettlement in your own community,” Moog said.

Beal also emphasized the importance of volunteers at City of Refuge, saying the organization is “always looking” for people to help with various needs refugees may have, such as English tutoring or helping students with their homework. Those interested in volunteering can fill out a volunteer application on City of Refuge’s website.

“We would love for those in Columbia who are passionate about this right now and want to help to remain passionate when refugees start coming, even if it takes a while,” Beal wrote. “The support from our community is vital to the success of refugees regaining control of their lives.”

Catholic Charities is also looking to hire an additional staff member to help with Afghan resettlement who can speak Dari/Farsi and Pashto, two languages spoken in Afghanistan.

Overall, Moog says community support will be essential to the refugee resettlement process and urged people to keep an open mind.

“I hope that people can, instead of feeling fear or anxiety or worry, that they can instead open their hearts and their minds and their doors, and focus on welcoming our newcomers,” she said.