Refugee Resettlement in Rochester
by Patrick McCullough | published Nov. 12th, 2021
Rochester is one of many cities taking in Afghan refugees following the U.S.’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Shortly after troops from the U.S.-led coalition began leaving the country, the Taliban swept into Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul. The government collapsed, putting an end to the U.S.’s campaign to remake the country.
Setting the Stage
On Aug. 30, 2021, the last U.S. planes disappeared into the skies over Afghanistan. After 20 years overseas Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, announced the completion of America’s longest war.
On Feb. 29, 2020, chief negotiators from the U.S. and the Taliban penned the Doha Agreement, officially titled the “Agreement for Bringing Peace in Afghanistan.”
Under the agreement, the U.S. committed to withdraw all of its military forces, the forces of its allies and Coalition partners and all associated personnel within 14 months of the agreement.
A complete pullout was contingent on the Taliban meeting their own commitment to prevent terrorism from their own forces, including a specific obligation to prevent its members or any other groups from using Afghan soil to plot attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
The Doha Agreement was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. The agreement paved the way for a ceasefire and peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, despite being signed without participation from the Afghan government.
The Trump administration kept to their pact to reduce U.S. troop levels in the region, despite increasing Taliban attacks against Afghan forces in the weeks following the Doha Agreement.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that while the Taliban had held to their agreement to not mount attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces, the militants’ level of violence was “not conducive to a diplomatic solution.”
After months of delay, Taliban-Afghan government negotiations opened in Qatar. Discussions lingered over several months, and petered out with no progress towards lasting peace — the Afghan government refused proposals for a unity government and the Taliban balked at a cease-fire with the government.
A New Administration Commits
At the start of Joe Biden’s presidency in 2021, 2,500 U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan. According to the administration, the U.S. was preparing to end its presence in the country. It had met its objective 10 years ago with the assassination of Taliban leader Osama bin Laden.
“Our reasons for staying have become increasingly unclear,” President Biden explained.
In a speech from the White House, Biden claimed he had inherited a diplomatic agreement to pull American forces out of the region by May 1, 2021. The administration announced its intent to begin pulling forces out on that day, and to conclude the withdrawal by Sept. 11, 2021.
On July 8, 2021, the White House revised its time-table for withdrawal. In a statement saying “speed is safety,” the administration announced an expedited date for withdrawal — Aug. 31, 2021.
In the same statement, Biden assured Americans that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
On Aug. 6, 2021, the Taliban seized control of the capital of Nimroz, the first provincial capital since the U.S. began its withdrawal.
Nine days later, Taliban militias swept into Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul. Within hours, Afghanistan’s America-backed president had fled the country and U.S. diplomats were airlifted from the embassy.
In the Wake of Withdrawal
The takeover of Kabul came as the U.S. continued to draw down its forces. Taliban offensives accelerated across the country, with militia members claiming victory upon victory in dozens of key cities, until they finally seized the country’s capital.
Crowds flooded Kabul’s main airport as the Taliban enforced their rule over the capital city. Some were so desperate to escape Taliban rule that they fell to their deaths clinging to the side of a military jet as the plane took off.
Hundreds of people remained, trapped between American forces trying to push them out of the airport and Taliban forces trying to keep them in according to witnesses.
Tensions continued to swell after two suicide bombers affiliated with the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, attacked Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26, 2021, killing at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
The drone strike the U.S. issued three days later was initially reported to have killed an Islamic State suicide bomber who posed an imminent threat to U.S.-led troops at the airport.
On Sept. 10, 2021, aNew York Timesvisual investigation revealed that the 20-pound Hellfire missile delivered via drone had instead been dropped on Zamarai Ahmadi, an Afghan aid worker who was among the 10 civilians killed in what the U.S. military would admit to being a “tragic mistake.”
Amidst the chaos, the Taliban promised a new era of peace in Afghanistan, but Afghans remained skeptical of the insurgents' claims.
According to the AP News’s reporting, many Afghans fear the Taliban will roll back the rights of women and minorities now that they have returned to power.
Since taking power, the Taliban has promised to uphold women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has also said the Taliban wanted private media to remain independent, but stressed that journalists “should not work against national values.”
Their fears are not entirely unfounded. Since that statement, Afghan women have been banned from playing sports. Dozens of women’s shelters and safe houses have also shut down for fear of once again being outlawed.
The Taliban’s all-male government has also implemented education reforms. Women in Afghanistan can continue to study in universities, but classrooms are to be segregated by gender and Islamic dress is compulsory.
In the month following the fall of Kabul and the takeover of Afghanistan, female activists have staged demonstrations across the country. At one gathering in Kabul, participants were routed with tear gas and rifle butts.
As the situation continues to evolve in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, refugees continue to flee to surrounding countries and the U.S.
As many as 1,143 Afghan nationals could settle in N.Y. communities in the coming months, according to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Mohammad Sami is one such person, who came to America on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) — special visa applications that are available to people who have worked with the U.S. government in Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, for people who were working with the American Military ... It's not safe. I'm so happy now that I'm here, and not in Afghanistan," Sami said.
"In Afghanistan, for people who were working with the American Military ... It's not safe."
Parts of the immigration process are handled by organizations like Refugees Helping Refugees — a Rochester-based non-profit that helps refugees navigate the bureaucratic process and provides access to meal programs, youth education and even a sewing circle.
The application process for an SIV can take time, and the paperwork is not available to everyone. Even though Sami has made it into the country, members of his family remain in Afghanistan.
"I'm just coming with myself ... Only me," Sami explained. "My mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, my wife ... Last week, my wife's papers were done. I am just waiting."
Haji Yuldash worked as a cultural advisor and translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan before coming to America on an SIV. Today, Yuldash works as a youth navigator for Refugees Helping Refugees.
"We are expecting more than 500 individuals as far as we know from the Afghan community," Yuldash explained. "We don't have a timeline, I can't say the exact date, but we are expecting them soon."
The figure of 500 Afghan refugees moving into Rochester doesn't account for family — parents, siblings, children and spouses could still remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
On July 22, 2021, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to boost the number of SIVs by 8,000. The bill, dubbed the "Allies Act," also removed bureaucratic application requirements that slow down the SIV process.
Expanding the SIV process was not enough to account for everyone fleeing Afghanistan. As a part of Operation Allies Refuge, the Biden administration also intends to resettle as many as 50,000 Afghans through a program known as 'humanitarian parole.'
Afghans who are likely to be at risk under the Taliban-led government and who haven’t requested, or may not qualify for, an SIV may be evacuated under humanitarian parole. Many of the families of SIV holders hope to enter the country through this process, but it can be an expensive journey. Organizations like Refugees Helping Refugees have turned to community crowdfunding to cover the $575 application fee each person must pay.
Under Operation Allies Refuge, Afghan parolees are granted protection from deportation for two years and are eligible for work authorization in the U.S. Unlike refugees and SIV holders, humanitarian parolees do not typically receive federally funded benefits, and the resettlement agencies supporting these people are funded largely through private donations.
On Sept. 30, 2021, Congress passed a resolution that included $6.3 billion in supplemental funding for Afghan resettlement, as well as some benefits for parolees who were not covered under previous programs.
Part of the Rochester resettlement program operates out of the Catholic Family Center, a non-profit human services organization where Lisa Hoyt works as the Director of Refugee and Immigration Services.
“Initially, flights were diverted to military bases that weren’t in America,” Hoyt explained. “There’s also about 35,000 of mixed SIVs and evacuees in military bases in the United states right now. They have been there for a month, and they’ve just started to leave military bases this week.”
Michele Quinn is the associate director at Saint’s Place, a charity organization that works alongside the Catholic Family Center to provide for refugees in the Rochester area.
“We got notice that we were going to be receiving so many of these refugees, and the outpouring of generosity from the Rochester community has been amazing,” Quinn said.
"I can't tell you how heartwarming it is to see the community rally around organizations like ourselves that want to help the refugees."
Saint’s Place collects and stores donations of clothing, cutlery, toys, furniture and anything else needed to furnish a home from the local community.
“The refugees aren’t in Rochester yet, and when they do come we’re more than ready for them," Quinn explained. "But while we’re waiting we’ve run out of space. We’ve maxed out every storage area we have.”
Most of the refugees fleeing Afghanistan since the United States’ withdrawal have not been resettled into the country yet.
Military bases continue to vet and process people, but the number making their way into the Rochester community remains a trickle at the time of writing.
Since Aug. 1, 2021, the Catholic Family Center has resettled 33 SIV clients and has assured — or promised to take in — 28 evacuees. When refugees finally arrive in Rochester, the organization works with local charities like Saint’s Place to coordinate supply deliveries, provide newcomers with clothing and furnish houses.
There are also a number of programs that provide a different kind of support. Saint’s Place runs tutoring programs and educational initiatives that provide students with scholarships and school supplies.
The Catholic Family Center also provides educational opportunities, as well as job training, mental health services and residential programs for people battling addiction.
These organizations, and many others, are working hard to provide goods, services and support to the people fleeing the situation the U.S. left behind in Afghanistan.
“We used to, years ago, partner with RIT and do sign language classes here one night a week,” Hoyt said, discussing the Catholic Family Center’s past work. “We had some volunteers from the school who would come and teach. We’re always interested in young, energetic volunteers.”
The situation in Afghanistan is one that could have only been initiated on a federal level, but the consequences of that decision are things that anyone can help solve. Most charitable organizations rely on volunteers and donations to function, and in times like these anything and everything helps.