Alaska is set to welcome refugees who’ve fled Afghanistan following the U.S. military’s withdrawal there last month.
Catholic Social Services’ Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program is expecting 50 to 100 Afghan refugees to begin arriving in Anchorage this month.
Catholic Social Services CEO Lisa Aquino says the refugee program’s staff and volunteers will help with things like finding housing and employment, as well as learning English.
Aquino says a wide range of Afghans are coming to Alaska, from translators and others who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan, to children and the elderly.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lisa Aquino: What they have in common is that they all needed to flee as a part of this humanitarian crisis — from their country from their home — in a really short period of time and leave everything that they knew behind. So if there’s one thing that ties them, it’s that they’re Afghans and they had to quickly leave their home for fear of being persecuted by the new government there.
Casey Grove: What do you know about their escape from Afghanistan? Or any part of that journey to the U.S.? And then, what’s their journey to Alaska going to be like?
Lisa Aquino: Sure, well, I would say we’re just finding out the details now. We don’t know much yet.
I would say that we know a little bit more about what’s happening after they leave Afghanistan. The people who are able to get on airplanes, they would fly to a U.S. military base in another country often, or to a U.S. military base in the Lower 48. And then, ordinarily, when people move to the United States — depending on the way that they go — there’s different processes that they follow. For these folks, because of the emergency situation in which they left, they’re doing a lot of that processing while traveling. So it’s one of those situations where they’re building the airplane as they’re flying it.
Casey Grove: That sounds pretty intense.
Lisa Aquino: And I’ll just say, too, about how they’ll get to Anchorage. So for these people, as a part of going through that process, they’ll go through a lot of different specific health checks to ensure their health and to ensure the health and safety of everybody in the United States. And that includes getting vaccinated for COVID and getting tested numerous times. And then they go through a number of security checks as well. So for people who are working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan, to get a job with the U.S. government, you have to go through a pretty intensive security check. And then as a part of this process, there’s at least three other security checks. There’s a rigorous process that people need to follow to come to the United States. And in this process — with people from Afghanistan — that rigor is still there.
Casey Grove: Gotcha. And I should probably ask: Do you anticipate pushback from the community about refugees coming here from Afghanistan?
Lisa Aquino: You know, I will say, we have received overwhelming support, Casey. We’ve had so many people reach out to us offering to donate their time, to donate their funds, to donate goods, to help people resettle here. So the response has just been overwhelming. We’ve had hundreds of people who already signed up to volunteer as a part of this process. I think there’s always questions to be answered about new processes. And we are happy and willing to answer all the questions that come to us. And I would just say that the Alaska spirit is alive and well. And there’s such an outpouring of love from Alaska for these new people to our state.
Casey Grove: I wonder in what ways can people help if they want to? I noticed in a news release that you sent out that there was even a sort of a letter writing thing to communicate just, you know, welcome to Alaska?
Lisa Aquino: Yes, there is. So if people want to find out ways to help, you can go to our website, cssalaska.org. And there’s different ways that people can help — everything from volunteering their time or donating goods or donating funds. And also, there’s an opportunity to write a message. This is a way that people in Alaska can welcome these newcomers to our country and to our state, and let them know that they’re supported here. And that we want to help.