Moline-based World Relief Quad Cities is working hard to welcome an expected 150 families who fled war-torn Afghanistan, to resettle them in their new American homes and lives.
“The Afghan population is going to be new to our community. We advocated to the U.S. Department of State to receive 150 Afghan humanitarian parolees,” Laura Fontaine, director of World Relief Quad Cities, said Tuesday. The Biden administration is bringing in about 75,000 Afghan families overall, which are now mainly housed at U.S. military bases around the country. The big issue is that Afghans are not considered refugees or on special immigrant visas, Fontaine said, noting they have two years to adjust their status.
“We’re going to be doing the exact same thing as with our refugees that come in — provide the exact same services,” she said. “We don’t have funding for those services yet, so I’m knocking on a lot of doors, from foundations. The administration has guaranteed three months of funding for the parolees, and they’re getting their work authorization and Social Security numbers, which is amazing.”
Women and children in Illinois will be eligible for medical benefits, Fontaine said. “We have amazing donors in this community. We have foundations; we are a welcoming community and we will help 150 humanitarian parolees regardless of funding. I think it’s the right thing to do, so we hopefully should be seeing some arrivals post October 1st.”
Last week, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), met with leaders of several QC organizations and advocates focused on efforts to resettle Afghan partners and allies who sacrificed for the U.S. 20-year mission in Afghanistan. She met with Fontaine, World Relief program manager Jen Osing, Doris & Victor Day Foundation executive director and Rock Island Ald. David Geenen and Omidullah Barikzay, a 22-year-old Afghan immigrant and current Rock Island resident, to discuss the importance of communities welcoming these Afghans to their new home.
“Our Afghan allies and partners did their part for us, time and again, for two decades half a world away,” Duckworth said. “When they begin to resettle here in Illinois, in the Quad Cities, we must do our part for them, too. It is our duty—as neighbors, friends, Americans—to welcome these brave Afghans and help settle them into their new homes.”
“Our teams at World Relief Quad Cities have worked tirelessly to serve Afghans who were able to be evacuated and who are now finding new homes in the United States,” said Fontaine. “We are greatly appreciative of Senator Duckworth’s work to raise awareness for how American citizens can help welcome and ease the transition for Afghans resettling in the United States. At World Relief, we believe every second counts as we work together to protect the vulnerable and bring lasting change to our world.”
Over the coming weeks and months, Illinois is expected to receive more than 800 resettled Afghan allies in the first group of evacuees, with roughly 150 expected in the Illinois QC area.
Unlike refugees, humanitarian parolees usually come to this country without first being vetted and gone through background and health checks (including vaccinations), which is happening now, Fontaine said. “Everything that’s usually done in country or in a refugee camp is being now over in the States now. That’s also a little bit of a hold-up. We’ve had Afghans here since August and we’re still waiting, doing the background checks.”
The concern from refugee resettlement agencies is that “we’re setting up an entire population for failure, if we don’t give them that head start,” she said. “We’ve found that refugees are more likely to vote, to buy houses. We’ve seen the rejuvenation of some of the Rock Island neighborhoods here as well. But if you’re not set up for success — learning English, having the opportunity to go to college or high schools, it’s a failure for our whole country.”
World Relief is the only such agency within a 110-mile radius, and they’re only allowed to work within Illinois, Fontaine said. The closest similar agency is in Iowa City. She can’t resettle Afghans in Iowa, but is working to change that since the QC is a bi-state region. “That is one of the other obstacles we’re trying to deal with,” Fontaine said.
Moving from Russia to Rock Island
Barikzay is a 22-year-old Afghani native who works as a software engineer for John Deere, in his third year and is volunteering with World Relief. He graduated from Augustana College this past spring and is studying for his master’s in cyber security from Iowa State University.
His family left Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002, to live in Moscow, Russia, and they moved (with six siblings) to Rock Island in 2012, starting in 8th grade at Washington Junior High. Barikzay’s remaining relatives in Afghanistan are unemployed and he’s worried about their future. He studied web design at Rock Island High School.
They didn’t know anyone in the Quad Cities when they came here, but picked the area partly for the similar weather, and the fact that it’s not a crowded, polluted city, he said.
Barikzay originally moved without his father, but his dad found a job fairly quickly later as a cook in 2015 (now working at Augustana). World Relief was a big help to their family, he said, noting there’s just one other Afghan family in the area.
“World Relief had some of the housing set up for us; helped us with basics — like Social Security, enrolling us into school,” he said. “They definitely helped.”
Barikzay is fluent in Russian and English, as well as two Afghan languages (though he can’t write them as well since he didn’t go to school there). He is helping World Relief resettle other families because he was helped and he likes to give back.
“A lot of those people will go on to help the Quad Cities,” he said. “It will definitely take them time to get settled, to get used to the new language and culture.”
“The Quad Cities is a welcoming community, so it definitely will be easier for them to adjust than other places,” Barikzay said. “I’m excited and looking forward to all those people coming here.”
He said he understood the U.S. forces finally withdrawing from his home country in August, noting it was time for Afghans to step up and rule for themselves. “They shouldn’t be fighting a war that’s not directly theirs,” he said of the U.S.
World Relief offers a food pantry and legal services, among other services, and works to support families up to five years after they move. Fontaine called Barikzay a true success story, “fulfilling the American dream.”
“I find that a lot of our refugees and clients — they volunteer and give back to the community that welcomed them,” she said. “That’s one thing I’m really proud of our clients, especially Omidullah.”
World Relief also is helping Barikzay’s family in Afghanistan, who have worked with U.S. military contractors. When Fontaine met with Sen. Duckworth last week, she expressed her support.
“A lot of people are stuck in Afghanistan. The Taliban is knocking on doors daily,” Fontaine said. “If they worked for American contractors, their life is in danger.”
“It’s the biggest problem for people still there,” Barikzay said. “Many of them have 10, 15 years of work experience — other people I know of, who worked with the U.S.”
One of his uncles died in 2012, and the Taliban came to his family’s house just a few weeks ago, asking for him.
“My aunt was like, he passed away in 2012. You can ask anyone you want,” Barikzay said. “What is shocking to me is, how are they finding those names?”
The challenges for Afghans moving here include adapting to language, culture, finding housing, jobs and health care, he said. “There’s not enough housing, which is one of the biggest problems,” he said, noting there are long wait lists for public housing.
Working on several levels to offer assistance
Many families have many children as well, Fontaine said, adding the vulnerable need help in our community.
“I’m still waiting on an answer from our headquarters,” she said of serving health needs for immigrants who have chronic diseases like diabetes. “Are they leaving with three-months supply of medicine? Probably not. We’re looking at how much is it each month? It’s not rational to think our Afghans are leaving their war-torn country — they’re going to have post-traumatic stress; going to have mental health issues, and a lot of them don’t speak the language.
“For them to think within a week of arrival, they’re going to work, speak the language and get everything covered, it’s just not realistic, unfortunately,” Fontaine said, noting Illinois has been very supportive with public assistance (like SNAP and WIC).
She spoke with Sen. Duckworth about supporting housing and other needs. “She was really concerned about jobs,” Fontaine said. “We have amazing people coming — like engineers, doctors, translators.”
They hope to work with local unions and businesses, to offer apprentice programs for Afghans, she said, to place them in jobs related to what they did back home.
“I was very impressed with her; she’s very proactive,” Fontaine said of Duckworth. “It’s nice to see we have that support at the federal level.”
World Relief will start an in-house mental health program, funded by the Doris & Victor Day Foundation, as a pilot program, she added.
“We’re going to have a new culture in our community, which is amazing,” Fontaine said. “I think that the U.S. really is a melting pot, so having Afghans come to the Quad Cities is just going to make our region even better — richer in culture. I’m hoping for an Afghan restaurant.”
“It makes for a richer community,” she said. “To have all these different amenities and cultures, it’s something to celebrate.”
World Relief in the QC always needs more help from people to volunteer, advocate and give. For more information, visit worldrelief.org/quad-cities.