Finding housing and hiring teachers are among the challenges facing resettlement agencies and school administrators in Northern Virginia as they prepare to welcome many of the more than 1,100 Afghan refugees expected to be resettled in the state.
The refugees are among the nearly 50,000 currently living at eight military bases across the country, including the Marine Corps base at Quantico in Prince William County, according to The New York Times. Another 18,000 are based abroad in countries such as Germany, Qatar, Bahrain and Spain.
And although it is not known how many refugees would be resettled in Northern Virginia, The Associated Press reported that Virginia as a whole could be responsible for the resettlement of approximately 1,166 Afghans, a number much higher than most other states.
Stephen Carattini, chief executive officer of Arlington Catholic Charities, said that in the past two months his organization has resettled more than 200 Afghan refugees on special immigrant visas (SIVs) to Northern Virginia. The organization has offered support to thousands of refugees since 1974 and has resettled more than 393 Afghan IVS holders during the fiscal year to date. Carattini said he plans to almost double that number in the coming year.
However, Carattini noted that it’s impossible to know exactly how many refugees to expect.
“We are still a little calm before the storm,” he said. “We’re just starting to see the early arrivals, I think, but we still don’t know how many will be coming to Northern Virginia.”
Currently, refugee services are provided by six resettlement agencies across the state: Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Social Services.
Once refugees are federally approved, each of these agencies will work to help them find housing, education, medical care and transportation. Volunteers and staff also give individuals and families a general overview of life in the United States and help them apply for government benefits, including health insurance and food assistance, if they are eligible.
Carattini said there had been a generous wave of community support and donations in recent weeks, and the organization’s warehouses were full of items such as food, clothing and hygiene items.
But some of the biggest challenges going forward, Carattini noted, will be finding housing, employment opportunities and access to professional services, especially for people who have been granted “humanitarian parole” status. “.
Unlike SIV holders, who have supported US armed forces abroad in conflict zones, âparoleesâ are people who, under normal circumstances, would not be allowed to enter the United States, but who are allowed to enter the country for a period of time due to an emergency. But, legally, the granting of âhumanitarian paroleâ does not confer the same rights as refugee status. SIV holders enjoy much broader public benefits than âparoleesâ, including cash assistance, food stamps, health insurance through Medicaid and the establishment of permanent legal residence.
For now, Carattini has said most “parolees” are not eligible for government housing and other benefits, such as Medicaid, which could change if Congress decides to act.
But Carattini said that to find refugee housing is a challenge no matter their status, as it is difficult to convince landlords to rent to people who have no income, job, or credit score.
Access to health care is also crucial for these newly arrived refugees, Carattini noted, and his organization asked local doctors if they would offer free health checkups to “parolees” in particular.
“There are still a lot of questions about the exact level of benefits and services the government will provide to these parolees,” he said. “And we may have to look for ways to supplement that or make up for what is a necessary supplement.”
After large numbers of refugees began arriving at Dulles International Airport in late August, the Washington Post reported that Fairfax County hospitals were initially overwhelmed with hundreds of refugees seeking emergency medical assistance.
A county spokesperson said Fairfax had transported 245 refugees to hospitals at an estimated cost of $ 134,000 as of September 20. The spokesperson said the cost will be billed directly to the contractor supporting the federal operation..
On September 13, Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner wrote a joint letter to the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency calling for “increased coordination and improved communication with the locations and institutions in Virginia participating in Operation Allies Welcome”, in particular with regard to concerns the medical capacity of military installations.
Kaine and Warner noted in the letter that local hospital staff are already inundated with COVID-19 cases and inquired about official federal government policy regarding families receiving COVID-19 vaccines, as well as plans in place to provide medical care if local hospitals and community health providers reach their full capacity.
In addition to the increase in hospital visits, local school districts, such as Fairfax, are also starting to see a surge in enrollment of Afghan refugees.
Meredith Hedrick, chair of the department of English for Speakers of Other Languages ââat Annandale High School, said that in the past three weeks the school has enrolled 29 international students, six of whom were Afghan refugees.
But Hedrick noted that Annandale has wide access to resources, making it easier to meet the needs of students and families. And because Fairfax is used to receiving dozens of refugees and immigrants every year, Hedrick said it’s much easier for school staff to be flexible compared to other school districts.
âWe were already at 136% of our capacity before,â Hedrick said. “And luckily we’re the Fairfax County Public Schools, so if we need more office space, we call the warehouse.”
In total, Fairfax had registered 82 Afghan refugees – 45 elementary school students, 14 middle school students and 23 high school students – as of September 15.
Hedrick said she has no idea how many more Afghan refugees to expect, as it will depend on how many families end up in Fairfax.
To help Afghan families (and families in general) who settle in the region, the parent-teacher association of Annandale is organizing a pantry, and counselors and school staff have a checklist of important school-related and out-of-school issues to review with families to determine if they need additional resources.
“[Counselors will] determine their needs and then connect them to the right resource, âHedrick said. âSo it could be getting insurance, it could beâ¦ we have these vouchers for VisionWorks where they can get the eye exam and the glasses. We have free and reduced breakfasts for example or food stamps, so we have a whole process and checklists, when we meet with families. “
Hedrick noted that there could be some initial challenges due to COVID and the current teacher shortage.
“I’ve never done this in COVID, let alone when there’s a shortage of teachers, but yes, in general we’re used to the ebb and flow of immigration,” Hedrick said. “And I am very confident that we will overcome this, but there are always difficulties.”