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How the local community is supporting Afghan evacuees in Charlottesville

Groups such as the ASA and the IRC have mobilized in Charlottesville to support Afghan refugees who have been driven out of their country

The IRC has voiced concern over the implications of Taliban-rule on Afghan women and girls.
The IRC has voiced concern over the implications of Taliban-rule on Afghan women and girls.

Upon U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover, Afghan men, women and children have fled and entered communities in the U.S. Charlottesville is among these communities welcoming those leaving Afghanistan, with local organizations and members of the University community actively engaged in efforts to support these refugees. 

Charlottesville is home to a significant refugee population. The Charlottesville branch of the International Rescue Committee has aided over 4,600 refugees from 32 countries since its founding in 1998, the organization says. 

Of the 4,652 immigrants the organization has helped over the past 23 years, 1,444 were from Afghanistan, constituting the largest group served by the IRC. Other refugees have come from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries in crisis, though the IRC has observed a significant upsurge in Afghan evacuees due to the instability in their home country.

One reason for this higher amount of aid to Afghan refugees is that Afghanistan was not included in the Muslim ban instituted by former president Donald Trump’s administration, which banned individuals from predominantly Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

“Over the last five years, when policies were shutting out refugees, Afghans were the people who could get here,” said Harriet Kuhr, director of the Charlottesville branch of the IRC.

The IRC plays a pivotal role in helping refugees resettle into the new communities they enter. The agency “helps those in need to rebuild their lives and regain control of their future in their new home community,” according to its site. Once refugees have been identified by the United Nations refugee agency and cleared for resettlement, the U.S. government works with the IRC and other national resettlement agencies.

Refugees may be placed in a city where they have relatives or friends, or where there is an established community that shares their language or culture. Other considerations include the cost of living and a community’s ability to provide medical services. 

Resettlement programming involves satisfying refugees’ basic needs for food, shelter and legal rights in the early, critical stages of resettlement. IRC programs include employment services, education and integration, family support and New Roots — a food and agriculture initiative that provides land access, material support and education. The initiative operates an urban farm, community garden and neighborhood farm stand. 

The IRC is one of only nine resettlement agencies nationwide. The Church World Service, World Relief Corporation and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services also responded to the crisis in Afghanistan.

According to Kuhr, the Charlottesville community has embraced the call to help those fleeing Afghanistan. Kuhr said she was fielding “thirty to forty calls a day” from community members who want to get involved. 

Donations coming in are primarily financial, which mostly go to housing support and other IRC programming. Because the IRC uses the money they receive from the federal government quickly, donations from community members are extremely valuable. 

The IRC in Charlottesville has been overwhelmed by donations of goods, including diapers, foodstuffs and kitchenware, so they are pausing item donations for the month of September. Instead, the IRC is urging those who would like to help to donate gift cards to stores such as Kroger, Food Lion, Walmart and Amazon. 

“​​Gift cards give families who have lost everything agency to purchase the things that would make them feel most at home in our community; the clothes they like to wear, their favorite foods, etc.,” the IRC website reads. “This small gesture goes a long way to helping restore people's dignity and sense of self-worth.”

Gift cards to Afghan grocery stores, such as Medina Market and Grand Market are also appreciated. All gift cards can be mailed to the office at 609 East Market Street, Suite 104.

Kuhr said she has been pleased with community support, but remarked that the IRC’s existing system is not set up to accommodate such large numbers of evacuees.

“It’s unprecedented for us to resettle so many people so urgently in such a short time,” Kuhr said. “We are very grateful for the outpouring of support from the community.”

The Charlottesville office of the IRC has compiled a list of ways to help for those who would like to contribute to the effort. Individuals can welcome an evacuee into one’s home, urge President Joe Biden to scale up humanitarian assistance by signing a petition and make financial donations.

The IRC has also voiced concern over the implications of Taliban-rule on Afghan women and girls. While the Taliban has said that it would impose a more moderate and inclusive form of rule compared to its previous regime from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women are skeptical and have continued protesting for their rights. The last time the Taliban was in power, women were denied education and access to basic healthcare, among other oppressive rules including a restrictive dress code and being forced to remain at home. Since its takeover, the Taliban has already announced the separation of universities by gender and a new dress code for female students to follow.

“With uncertainty mounting throughout Afghanistan, the IRC is concerned that we could see an increase in violence against women as well as an increase in child marriage,” said Elinor Raikes, IRC vice-president and head of program delivery. 

Asst. Global Studies Prof. Helena Zeweri completed research on immigrant-targeted social welfare programs in settler colonial states, as well as refugee and diasporic-led politics. Through her work with the Afghan-American Artists and Writers Association, Zeweri participates in advocacy work for Afghan women and is involved in efforts to help people evacuate.

Zeweri noted “it is important to remember that Afghan women’s democratic politics and participation precedes U.S. intervention in 2001.”

“Historicizing Afghan women’s various modes of resisting inequality and oppressive and repressive governments and regimes is essential,” Zeweri said. 

Recent media coverage has crafted a “dangerous narrative” which gives the impression that as soon as the U.S. left, the situation in Afghanistan returned to just as it was before U.S. occupation, Zeweri said.

“The fact is that women in the country have been resisting in all kinds of ways since the beginning of [Afghanistan’s] founding in the eighteenth century,” Zeweri said. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that war is the antidote to what we see right now.”

As documented by Brown University’s Costs of War Initiative, the human fallout of the Afghanistan war is extensive. Over 70,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the twenty-year war, and over five million people have been displaced from 2001 to 2020. 

When considering how to support Afghan women during this crisis, Zeweri advised it is important to remember that “Afghan women are not a monolithic group of people, they are human beings who have all kinds of aspirations.” 

“In the Global North, it is important to provide support for women without forgetting that they’ve lived long, full, and accomplished lives before this moment of vulnerability and displacement,” Zeweri said. 

In fact, many women stayed in Afghanistan and are currently advocating for women who are still there. Mahbooba Seraj, founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, remained in her country to “protect the women and girls she’s responsible for,” she told NPR. 

Any action the U.S. government takes moving forward requires a “reckoning with its implicitness and perpetuation of war, and its role in the resurrecting of the Taliban,” Zeweri said. 

“The Taliban didn’t emerge out of nowhere,” Zeweri added. “The U.S. played a big role in resurrecting its power, and in financing warlords over the past twenty years — warlords that have committed terrible atrocities.”

While philanthropic work is crucial, Zeweri noted that the crisis is a “political and structural problem.” 

In addition to the IRC, the Afghan Student Association is also involved in the response to the crisis, leading protests and donation drives. 

Since the Taliban’s takeover, the ASA has been working with Muslims United at the University. 

Neala Loynab, fourth-year College student and vice-president of ASA, says the groups helped a local Afghan family in Charlottesville to welcome the first evacuee family that arrived in Charlottesville prior to their case being approved by the IRC. 

“We helped raise monetary donations as well as arrange a donation drive to ensure we got the family and especially their kids everything they needed at the time being,” Loynab said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “Thankfully their case was approved by the IRC not too long ago and they’re in much better standing than before now.”

The ASA is currently hosting drives to help the families and children of three families who recently arrived in Afghanistan. The donation drive has an updated list of future and urgent needs, including new clothes, children’s medicine and grocery gift cards. The organization hopes to get all urgent donations by Sept. 23 or 24, though they will continue to accept donations afterwards. 

Additionally, the ASA is working to develop a GoFundMe or mutual aid plan that will help local refugee families in Charlottesville, which could then be used to aid the remaining refugee families in the U.S. 

Like Kuhr, Loynab said she is grateful for the outpouring of community support.

“Overall I feel as though the Afghan community here has definitely come together beautifully to ensure we offer as much help as possible to the much deserving refugees that have recently arrived in the States,” Loynab said. “The amount of support we’ve received from our allies and community has been very heartwarming to see.”

The Charlottesville Alliance for Refugees at the University has been supporting the ASA’s efforts. Its main mission is to connect the University community with the local refugee population.

“There is a significant amount of refugees residing in Charlottesville, and we aim to get the student body active in aiding them, as well as bringing awareness to and educating about their struggles,” said Mehreen Mirza, president of CAR and fourth-year College student.

Through their several committees — English as a Second Language, journalism, advocacy, outreach and fundraising — the organization hopes to bring awareness to and educate the student body about the struggles of the local refugee community. 

CAR’s ESL program is currently starting its orientation and pairing students with refugees through the Piedmont Virginia Community College, many of whom are Afghan. 

“This is vital, since a basic English understanding is the first step to helping refugees to really integrate comfortably into our communities,” Mirza said. 

Mirza expressed that CAR is always looking for new members and hopes to continue community support even after the crisis in Afghanistan loses public attention. 

“Many often don't realize, but there are many struggles that refugees experience even after coming into a ‘safe’ country,” Mirza said. “As a community, we have access to many resources that can be used to help them integrate easily and comfortably, which I see as our communities' responsibility to facilitate.”

Student Veterans of America at U.Va. also hosted a donation drive and is still accepting financial donations for the IRC on their GoFundMe page. Drop-off locations for the drive are 2111 Jefferson Park Avenue, Apt. 3 and 505 16th St NW, Apt 4. 

Naswa Osmani, president of the Afghan Student Union at George Mason University, has been leading efforts in Northern Virginia to respond to the crisis. Through the Afghan Student Union, Osmani has facilitated community outreach and directed people to volunteer.

Osmani’s efforts have included leading a protest with organizers in Northern Virginia, in addition to hosting three donation drives to raise money for displaced families and resettlement efforts and accrue supplies for pregnant women. 

When Afghan evacuees arrive in Virginia, they are first taken to the Dulles Expo Center, where they stay before they are taken to a military base to have their paperwork processed and await further transfer. Osmani, who has spent considerable time in the Center, described the scene as “very chaotic.” Over the course of six hours volunteering in Dulles, Osmani witnessed six hundred people enter. 

Osami said the greatest issue facing evacuees at the Center is the lack of “cultural competency” — which generally means the ability to provide services to clients that honor different cultural beliefs, interpersonal styles, attitudes and behaviors. The seemingly small issues that have arisen from a lack of cultural competency are “actually really significant,” Osmani said, as this is the Afghan evacuees’ first entry point into the U.S. 

Fortunately, a few local Afghan restaurants have coordinated with Dulles to provide food to the evacuees that they are familiar with.

Osmami encouraged individuals to support local efforts by donating both time and money, as well as posting on social media to raise awareness.