Art by Bridget Killian

Over the course of the past year, two major international events–the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine–have resulted in a large increase in the number of refugees to the United States, many of whom will end up resettling in Chicago. The magnitude of the Ukrainian exodus is hard to overstate; as of mid-April, more than 4.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine to nearby countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova and more; that’s approximately two thirds of the total number of Syrian refugees over the duration of the Syrian Civil War. In response, President Joe Biden recently pledged that the U.S. would resettle up to 100,000 Ukrainians who were forced to leave their country due to the war. 

This number is significant on its own, but stands out even more in the context of recent years. During the last year of the Obama administration, the United States accepted around 85,000 refugees; over the course of the Trump administration, that number dropped annually until it bottomed out at 11,814 in 2020. When Biden entered office in 2021—and especially after  the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in more than 65,000 Afghans being evacuated to the United States—refugee resettlement agencies in Chicago felt the shift. 

RefugeeOne, the largest resettlement agency in Chicago, settled around one hundred people in the last year of the Trump administration. But since July 2021, the organization has welcomed 600 individuals, 450 of which arrived from Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Hyde Park Refugee Project, a local, volunteer-run resettlement agency, has resettled four Afghan families in quick succession since the fall of 2021. A similar surge is expected for Ukrainian refugees.

Which is why refugee organizations are preparing. But rebuilding the infrastructure needed to resettle large numbers of refugees is a challenge. During the Trump administration, many agencies were forced to lay off staff and lost significant institutional knowledge. “The infrastructure that was in place to welcome refugees was basically torn apart,” said Jims Porter, of RefugeeOne. “Basically, overnight, we were expected to find a way to rebuild all of that, but without really any immediate access to funds.”

To welcome incoming Afghan refugees in the fall and winter of 2021, resettlement agencies had to adapt quickly to hire language interpreters, mental health clinicians, and additional staff. Funding from the state has been critical to building RefugeeOne’s capacity for new arrivals. The federal government provides funding to resettlement agencies to support families, but this funding only covers costs for three months. Recognizing that these expectations are unrealistic for refugee families, who have experienced significant dislocation and trauma, RefugeeOne keeps some of its services—such as employment support—available to families for up to five years. 

For the Hyde Park Refugee Project, the willingness of the Hyde Park community to step in and help has been instrumental to the agency’s ability to both meet the sudden need and sustain it over the long term. “I think the way that we see ourselves as different from the large resettlement agencies is that we’re trying to provide really intense services [over the] long term. So we don’t have hundreds of families, we have five to ten families that we’re working with. But we’re working really closely with them,” said Lisa Jenschke, one of the organization’s co-directors. With the help of its many volunteers, the organization is able to provide mentorship, English-language classes, youth summer camps, employment support, housing assistance, and more to the families that they resettle.

“With the Afghan evacuation at the end of last summer, what we found was that we suddenly had a lot of volunteers coming to us who were originally from Iran or Pakistan and spoke one of the languages in the country. And they were like, how can I help?” Jenschke explained. “I think that’s something that I can see [happening] when we start getting people from Ukraine as well.”

The uncertain legal status of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees in the United States creates additional challenges for resettlement agencies. Most refugees have official refugee status granted before their arrival in the U.S. by the federal government or the UN Refugee Agency, which may recommend permanent resettlement for those most vulnerable. But displaced Afghan and Ukranian people are navigating unique legal obstacles in seeking asylum and resettlement.

Most Afghans needing resettlement have arrived with “humanitarian parole,” a status determined by the federal government in response to the emergency situation. While they meet the definition of a refugee, most will still need to apply for asylum in the near future to be eligible for the same legal benefits refugees have. “When it comes to humanitarian parolees, like Afghans, originally, humanitarian parole was not going to include access to federally funded resettlement services. It didn’t look like Afghans were going to have access to the resettlement services that we offer…and they wouldn’t have access to public benefits either,” said Porter. “So we did a lot of advocacy on that front and we were able to make sure that they did receive access to public benefits, and they did get qualification for resettlement services.”

Ukrainian arrivals may also initially be granted humanitarian parole or Temporary Protected Status, which provides temporary legal status to immigrants from designated countries but may mean that they will be sent back to their country of origin once it is deemed safe. Some may also come as asylum seekers, who present themselves at the border or in the country with a well-founded fear of persecution. While these designations are complicated and in flux, they have meaningful impacts on how Afghan and Ukranian arrivals can access services and reach permanent safety here.

“I think they might have a grace period for a couple of years, but they probably are going to have to apply for asylum in that first year that they’re here,” said Jenschke. “And the immigration lawyers right now are really overloaded. Because who was expecting 70,000 Afghans to arrive all at once?” 

Refugee resettlement is dependent on community support. Both in Hyde Park and throughout the city, volunteers have stepped up to help refugee families resettle, especially those from the Ukrainian and Muslim communities.

“We’ve definitely seen an outpouring of support from not only those two communities, but just all people in Chicago, it’s been amazing to see people reaching out wanting to support,” said Porter. 

For those hoping to get involved, volunteer opportunities abound at RefugeeOne, the Hyde Park Refugee Project, and other organizations. “There are so many ways to be involved. It can be running a food drive at your church. We have a lot of high-school age volunteers who volunteer with our after-school program and with our summer camp […] Our ESL program is growing,” said Jenschke. She also encourages Chicagoans to get involved in advocacy to help address the legal challenges to refugee resettlement. “We’re going to need to help Congress understand what we need to do to support these people when they come in.”

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To learn more about volunteer opportunities at RefugeeOne, go to https://www.refugeeone.org/volunteer.html to fill out a volunteer application or email volunteer@refugeeone.org. You can also find resources for policy advocacy at https://www.refugeeone.org/advocacy.html

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at the Hyde Park Refugee Project, go to https://hydeparkrefugeeproject.org/get-involved/ to fill out a volunteer application or donate to sponsor a family.

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Correction, April 25, 2022: This story incorrectly stated how many people RefugeeOne helped to resettle. The number has been corrected; we apologize for our error.

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Alexandra Price is a social impact professional based in Hyde Park. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, learning languages, and meeting new people across Chicago. This is her first story for the Weekly. Reema Saleh is a journalist and graduate student at University of Chicago studying public policy. She last wrote about the apparel worker cooperative, Blue Tin Productions.

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