In August 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans left behind homes, belongings, and family members to flee from the Taliban.
The terrorist organization re-conquered Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrew from its 20-year-long war there, prompting a desperate last-minute airlift to bring Afghans that had allied with NATO and the U.S. to safety.
More than 76,000 Afghans were evacuated to U.S. military bases. And as they faced the daunting reality of having to build a new life in a new country, many Americans went searching for a way to help Afghans resettle.
At Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, the social justice committee also wanted to get involved. Inspired by efforts at other synagogues, Dani Fisher proposed starting a welcome circle: A group of people who use their own resources to support an Afghan family’s resettlement.
“A couple of the families who are also part of that social justice committee approached me afterward and said, ‘let’s do this,’” Fisher said. So Fisher, the Beth El families, and other families not affiliated with Beth El started the Twin Cities Afghan Welcome Circle on their own.
The initiative is just one of many across the Twin Cities Jewish community, where Jews, remembering their own refugee history, are supporting Afghan resettlement. Those efforts will get more airtime as the community celebrates Refugee Shabbat on March 4, running a donation drive and bringing attention to the plight of Afghan families, refugees, and asylum seekers.
“There’s really that sensibility within the Jewish community that we either directly — or our parents or grandparents or ancestors — came to this country in the exact same way,” Fisher said.
“It’s a communal obligation to do what we can to welcome others.”
Why welcome circles?
Refugee applications often take years of vetting before U.S. authorities approve people for resettlement.
Last summer, Afghans didn’t have the time to spare on applications. Instead, they were airlifted to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole program, which allows non-citizens to temporarily live here for “urgent humanitarian reasons.”
“Humanitarian parole is not a status,” said Robert Aronson, an immigration attorney and board chair of HIAS, the Jewish refugee agency. “It’s simply a two-year period of time allowing the United States to sort out what is going on.”
The parole program has several drawbacks. For one, because Afghans fleeing from the Taliban aren’t technically refugees, federal refugee funding can’t be used to help them. This left the U.S. with a problem: Now that Afghan families were here, would there be enough resources to resettle them?
The answer was to allow individuals and groups to privately sponsor families through the Community Sponsorship Hub, taking some stress off of federal and state resettlement efforts. People join together in welcome circles (also called circles of welcome), apply to sponsor a family through CSH, and take on all the financial and organizational responsibilities that refugee agencies normally help with.
“It’s a pretty labor-intensive application process,” Fisher said, “because the onus is on the welcome circle members to prove that we can do the very significant work [of supporting a family] for a period of six months.”
Some resettlement needs are straightforward: Fisher’s welcome circle has raised over $20,000 on GoFundMe and has been searching for housing. Other needs require more guidance, like understanding how to approach medical and mental health issues.
“A private sponsor is not expected to know how to address those types of needs,” Aronson said. That’s why traditional refugee agencies, like HIAS, are helping to inform and support welcome circles, even if they can’t contribute financially to resettlement.
Still, resettlement is full of the unexpected. Fisher’s welcome circle is still waiting to be matched with a family, as the U.S. already resettled the first wave of evacuees. But the U.S. plans to airlift more Afghans in the coming months.
“It’s a very fluid process,” Fisher said. “It was actually a little bit of a relief [not to be matched with a family immediately], because we hadn’t confirmed housing. So now we have a little bit more time…to go out and explore suitable housing options, more time to raise money, and more time to collect the furniture.”
But as humanitarian parolees, resettlement doesn’t mean instant security for Afghans, who are still in legal limbo. It’s extremely difficult to get a green card and become a permanent U.S. resident as a parolee.
About half of the 76,000 evacuees could get permanent residency here through a special immigrant visa (SIV), offered to Afghans who worked for the U.S.
But the remaining Afghans have no way to get residency under the parole program, short of applying for asylum and hoping that their case is processed quickly — which is unlikely, given that the U.S. asylum program has a backlog of almost half a million applications.
Help in the Twin Cities
In October, Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights partnered with Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota and started to prepare its welcome circle.
By early November, an Afghan family of eight, the Danishes, moved into a leased townhome with the support of the synagogue. The two parents and six young kids are among over 1,000 evacuees that have resettled in Minnesota so far.
While getting to know the Danishes, Beth Jacob members found out that the family’s father had a cousin and brother who, with their families, had also been resettled in the Twin Cities.
“So some of our group of volunteers decided to, quote-unquote, adopt the other families as well,” said Stuart Kaufman, lead organizer for Beth Jacob’s welcome circle.
“Our synagogue is not providing any financial support for anybody but [the Danishes]. But people have sort of adopted the other families, and are helping them get all the things done that we did for the original family,” he said.
Help means things like checking bills and making sure the families know where to send payment, getting books for the kids, applying for federal and state benefits, and driving family members to medical appointments.
It also means reassuring parents when necessary. For example, the father of the Danishes was concerned about the education his kids are getting in the U.S. — apparently, in Afghanistan, they had gotten more homework than they do now.
“The teacher had to say, ‘listen, your children are doing beautifully. They’re adapting very well, they’re well behaved…So we will give them a few more worksheets to bring home, but they’re doing very well,’” Kaufman said.
As they help, Beth Jacob members are also becoming part of the family.
“The families are very hospitable. They like to feed us,” Kaufman said. “So if you were there and spend three, four hours with them, they will provide you with a meal. And it’s almost impossible to say no.”
Welcome circles aren’t the only way Twin Cities Jews are involved in Afghan resettlement. Several institutions are running donation drives. In the fall, Leslie Martin helped organize Mount Zion’s efforts: A Target registry where people can buy and donate kitchen supplies and clothing to Afghan families through the Minnesota Council of Churches.
(To donate through Mount Zion, go to target.com, click on “registry,” and enter “Mount” as the first name and “Zion” as the last name to find the registry.)
“It broke my heart, watching the news, and seeing these people leaving their homeland with nothing,” Martin said. The registry was originally going to close at the end of February, but “then we started hearing all about Refugee Shabbat, which is coming up [on March 4].
“We’ll leave the registry open at least through March, and then we’re just playing this by ear. It depends on what’s needed. And what we hear from the agencies.”
Mount Zion members are also being encouraged to donate to the International Institute of Minnesota, an organization helping with Afghan resettlement.
For Refugee Shabbat, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, together with the Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, are also running a supply drive for Afghan families in Minnesota. Donations will be given to Alight, a refugee advocacy organization.
“It’s good to be working across the river and to be doing things together,” said Judy Halper, CEO of JFCS. “That makes us a stronger community.”
Twin Cities Jews aren’t just focused on Afghan resettlement. Temple Israel has run donation drives for Alight, and is also resettling a Somali refugee family together with the Minnesota Council of Churches. And Shir Tikvah quietly housed a Honduran family seeking asylum for several years.
Resettlement is serious work, but it’s also important to find time for play. Rabbi Ricky Kamil, who is helping Temple Israel with its immigration justice task force, has been taking the Somali family — a mother and her son — sledding.
“It was definitely something that I asked if they wanted to do,” Kamil said. ”We watched a YouTube video on our phone and said, ‘yeah, let’s go do it.’”
Afghans one part of bigger picture
Afghan resettlement comes as the U.S. is readjusting and trying to change resettlement and refugee programs.
Many refugee agencies have helped more people in the past year alone than they did in the previous several years.
“Under Trump, there were very, very few refugees being admitted to the United States,” Aronson, of HIAS, said. “So our domestic programs kind of atrophied. But our global programs just exploded.”
There is an unprecedented global refugee crisis: over 80 million people are displaced. “We’re not in a good place in the world,” Aronson said.
The Biden administration is trying to revamp programs and streamline approval for refugee applications. HIAS, along with other refugee agencies, is also lobbying Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would make it easier for Afghan humanitarian parolees to apply for permanent residency.
“I assume that [the Afghan Adjustment Act is] going to happen at some point,” said Kaufman, of Beth Jacob. “There’s no reason to bring all these immigrants here if you’re not going to let them stay.”
And with new global events, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s clear that the number of refugees is only going to increase. Evacuated Afghans are paying close attention to what comes next.