Photo by Denise Naim

Chicago Welcomes Afghan Refugees, But Many More in Dire Straits are Left Behind

“Our nation made a promise to the brave Afghans that stepped forward to protect our military, diplomatic, and NGO personnel in Afghanistan. Now is the time to keep our promise by evacuating allies and finding safe places for them to live and thrive in the United States.…We invite Afghan refugees to join us in Chicago, to share our home, and to build something greater together,” reads a letter sent to President Biden on August 30, signed by seventeen alderpersons from Chicago’s South, West, and North Sides, along with twenty-five local organizations tasked with transforming that welcoming invitation into reality. 

By that date, the United States government completed the evacuation of 120,000 Americans, Afghans, and other foreign nationals in what was one of the largest airlifts in U.S. history. Polling done by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and Ipsos suggests that the American public are firmly behind efforts to resettle Afghans who worked with American military, contractors, or NGO (non-governmental organization) workers, with eighty-six percent of Democrats in support along with eighty-one percent of Republicans and seventy-seven percent of Independents. Large, cross-partisan majorities are also in favor of evacuating Afghans who are in imminent danger under Taliban rule. With thousands of refugees living in Chicago and more than 500,000 foreign-born residents from countries as diverse as Iraq, Nigeria, and the Philippines, Chicago stands as a prospective haven for Afghan refugees.

Neha Gill, Executive Director of Apna Ghar (Our Home), an organization dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, is confident that Chicago is prepared for this undertaking. “Here in Chicago, there are organizations that can help get people apartments, counseling services, legal services, and resources,” she said. “All in all, we have a very low number of refugees coming into our country despite our tremendous size and capacity.” Gill, who has led Apna Ghar since 2013, is in the thick of conversations at the local and national level regarding Afghan refugee resettlement, serving on Cook County’s Commission on Women’s Issues for the 10th District and having advised government officials, the staff of UN agencies, and international NGOs.

According to RefugeeOne, a West Ridge-based refugee resettlement agency and a signatory to the August 30 letter, Chicago can expect “more than 500 Afghans [to] make their home here.” This non-profit organization offers apartment assistance, English classes, job training and search services, mental health, youth programming and mentorship, and immigration legal assistance. Through the State Department’s Refugee Administration Program, RefugeeOne aims to assist refugees in finding full-time, living wage employment within three months of arrival, and attain self-sufficiency within six to nine months. They are currently seeking volunteers who speak Dari, Pashto, and Farsi to assist with the incoming Afghan families.

At the time of this writing, few Afghan families have passed through the terminals at O’Hare and been resettled into the broader community. “In terms of resettling people, while some of those who were evacuated are arriving, however, they are being taken to military bases, to await further processing,” Gill said. “The only people being resettled are those refugees who were already in a third country. Paperwork for refugees is processed and provided prior to entry” by the UN Refugee Agency and the State Department, according to Gill. Thus many Afghans who would like to leave would need to first travel across the border before they could apply for refugee status. 

This is corroborated by a government document uncovered by The New York Times, detailing how thousands of evacuated Afghans are stuck in military bases in the United States or abroad as they go through medical and security screenings. More than twelve thousand are housed at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, a little more than a four hours’ drive northwest on I-94 from Chicago. It is likely that many will remain there for weeks if not months more.

Gill added that there have been some unaccompanied minors among the refugees. “I think some families in Afghanistan had to make the difficult decision to get their children out first,” she said. On September 22, seventy-five unaccompanied Afghan minors arrived in Chicago via a flight from Qatar and were greeted by local leaders of various organizations involved in the resettlement process. Hurdles remain for the children, as they will either be placed with a vetted relative or have to remain in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

Sima Quraishi, executive director of the Muslim Women Resource Center located in West Ridge and an Afghan refugee herself, was present at their arrival from 6am–4pm. She told me that many of the children “lost their parents at the airport of Kabul…because there was chaos at the airport.” She added, “One of the kids was telling me that [he] lost [his] parents’ hand and by the time he was looking [for them] he was already on the plane.” Quraishi did note that the children “are in good hands, I can say that, and I’m very, very happy to have seen what I saw.” 

Quraishi has dedicated her life to working with refugees in Chicago, first with Bosnians arriving in the 1990s after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and later with people from Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Her story of flight from the country was also due to conflict. “I was born in Afghanistan, and I left…when I was around five years old. We left…during the Russian War.” She said that when you are a refugee “you lose not only your family, you lose your community” and “a part of your childhood.” 

She founded the Muslim Women Resource Center shortly after 9/11 because many Muslim women “didn’t speak English and were always staying at home. It was hard for them to even buy milk,” Quraishi told me. Sher and her staff, which includes six Afghan-Americans, have been working weekends and nights assisting Afghans in need. “As soon as I get home I get another call that really breaks my heart because the stories are really unacceptable what others are going through with the bases, with unaccompanied minors. Families are being separated from each other…every family is missing a child or a woman or a man,” Quraishi said. Because of their language skills and resources, the Muslim Women Resource Center is currently helping six Afghan families get situated in Chicago, but they are in need of assistance because it may take the families time to start receiving government benefits and begin working.

Biden tasked the Secretary of State to “lead the continued coordination with our international partners to ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners, and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan.” In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee given on September 14, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave assurances that “there is no deadline” for the evacuation of Americans still in Afghanistan and “Afghans to whom we have a special commitment”, but he provided no details about what efforts to get them out would entail.

A formal proposal to Secretary Blinken drafted by Gill and Sherizaan Minwalla, an Iraq-based human rights attorney, identified two thousand women and children living in twenty-eight U.S. government-built shelters across Afghanistan as endangered by the Taliban regime with little hope of fleeing the country. “These people took tremendous risks because they believed what we said. We provided this information and some options, and now we’re just saying goodbye,” said Gill. Gill has spent her career advocating for and assisting survivors of gender-based violence from more than sixty-five countries through an innovative service model designed in conjunction with Loyola University of Chicago.

If the United States Government is concerned or committed to the fates of these women and children who believed our promises to shelter and care for them as survivors of gender-based violence, then they should be “designated as Priority 2 refugees of special humanitarian concern,” Gill said, and evacuated as soon as possible. 

“The destruction we’ve caused in Afghanistan is extensive and there are many people left in Afghanistan, but very few are going to be able to leave. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to leave, however, of those who need to leave, very few will be able to,” Gill said.

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To pressure the government into action on those Afghans still endangered by Taliban rule, the SouthWest Asia and North Afrika Collective (SWANA) led a protest at Federal Plaza on August 22 attended by more than one hundred Chicagoans. The DePaul student-led group formed in January to champion issues such as freeing Armenian POWs held by Azerbaijan following the war over the Nagorno-Karabakh and promoting a GoFundMe for a Palestinian medical student. In a statement issued by the group, the aim of the protest was to “demand accountability and justice from all involved governments and parties for their irresponsible involvement and demand the U.S. opens its borders to Afghan refugees looking to flee the country.” 

Despite goodwill at the local level, Gill said resettlement remains a federal issue. “The mayor has been very strong in support of our immigrant and refugee communities. She’s renewed the commitment of Chicago as a sanctuary city and her administration has been very supportive in making resources available…but immigration is ultimately a federal process.”

For those concerned about what comes next for Afghanistan, it is imperative that Illinois’ congressional representatives and senators know that this issue remains important to their constituents. While Illinois Senator Durbin did sign a letter on August 25 to Secretary Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in support of efforts to “provide humanitarian protection to those Afghan nationals in need,” the substance of their proposal only urged clearing the backlog in visa processing and using humanitarian parole for Afghan nationals with family members already in the United States. As Gill said, “I know that Biden said August 31 was the deadline, but we can still do more evacuations, and certainly we should be doing more and being more supportive of accepting a larger number of people. We owe it to them.”

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Max Blaisdell is an educator and basketball coach based in Hyde Park. He is originally from New York City and later served in Peace Corps Morocco. This is his first feature-length contribution to the Weekly.

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