🛫 Getting Evacuated Is Only The Beginning
We really don't like refugees.
But that's changing in remarkable ways. For some reason most Americans today, whether they are progressives or conservatives, actually want Afghan refugees to come here.
This is surprising because Americans don't really like refugees. For all our talk of accepting the "tired, poor ... huddled masses yearning to breath free," in 2019 we barely allowed any refugees to enter, and of course during COVID we shut the door completely.
And you'd be wrong if you think this is all because of Donald Trump.
Almost every successive decade over the last fifty years has seen a gradual decline in the number of refugees admitted into the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats have lowered the refugee resettlement cap or refused to raise it, resulting in fewer and fewer refugees entering the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, this trend is tied to a change in the demographic makeup of those seeking refuge in the United States: refugee and asylum seekers from the 1980's onwards have come overwhelmingly from Africa, Asia and Central America - not Europe or Australia - and almost every year we have let less and less of them in.
In the early part of the last century most of those who sought refuge in the U.S. were of European descent, for instance those fleeing the devastation wrought by WWII or the iron grip of communism in Eastern Europe. As Western European countries stopped fighting each other and communism ended in Eastern Europe, the bulk of refugees to the U.S. started looking a whole lot different: browner, poorer, and more "foreign."
That's why what's happening now is so surprising
Refugee resettlement groups have been inundated with calls from ordinary Americans seeking to assist the waves of Afghan citizens who have been arriving to the United States. State governors from across the political spectrum have offered aid and messages of support and welcome - a sharp contrast to the usual rhetoric from conservative circles that refugees portend some kind of invasion by terrorists.
Even in "deep red" parts of Texas, a state often divided over how to treat immigrants and refugees, residents have shown strong support for Afghan refugees. One colleague who was holding a training session recently moved it online because hundreds more signed up for the in-person session than expected, raising COVID infection concerns.
And it isn't just the U.S. that is accepting unprecedented numbers of refugees. Australia, another country with significant hardline anti-immigrant and anti-refugee forces, is also preparing to accept its largest group of refugees ever.
I guess it shouldn't be surprising since we certainly owe a moral duty to the people of a country we chose to invade, nonetheless it is a welcome shift in thinking, but ...
This goodwill may evaporate quickly
Despite all this good news, I fear that we are are ignoring the specific needs and conditions of this most recent group of refugees at their peril.
Even as an adult, I sometimes struggle with the trauma of a childhood spent as a refugee. But compared to the Afghan nationals now arriving in the U.S., I had it good. My parents, like many refugees, were highly educated upper-middle class professionals in their home country with a strong command over the English language. Their skills and education helped them overcome many of the integration challenges faced by immigrants, obtain gainful employment and prepare their children for the same.
A significant portion of the current batch of Afghan refugees lack these skills and tools. Indeed, many arrive with pre-existing social and psychological challenges such as mental illness, war shock or a history of domestic violence, all of which create nigh-insurmountable barriers for success.
Moreover, though all war is traumatic, these refugees are struggling with a level of residual trauma that is among the highest of any recent refugee population. They have dealt with not one, but two (and depending on their age, three) massive wars. For decades, many have survived at the edge of economic subsistence in a resource-constrained environment. Recently, they have been subject to the whims of an incompetent government and the anxiety of a departing foreign occupation. And over the last two years they have also been victims of a global pandemic and then most recently a Taliban-led blitzkrieg.
It is a wonder any have made it here at all.
But what concerns me even more than the inadequacy of our pre-existing refugee support system (which generally only provides a few months of support before leaving refugees to essentially fend for themselves) is what will happen when something goes wrong with this group. What will happen when a refugee like Mirwais (see above), perhaps driven by mental illness, PTSD, trauma, desperation or depression - acts out in unproductive or unhealthy ways?
There is an element of society in this country standing by to use Afghan refugees as the next tool in their arsenal of demagoguery and power politics. It is not if they will do so, but a question of when they will and how we will respond to these underhanded tactics.
The Afghan refugees arriving here now are resilient, powerful and beautiful people - but they are also just people ... fragile and strung out, tired and desperate as we all would be in their place. Beyond sustenance and employment, they need a higher level of attention:
They need policy advocates committed to building a sustainable government system to fund their needs beyond three months - perhaps an Afghan Refugee Resettlement Agency (ARRA - even the acronym works) with a time-limited mandate to ensure integration and support for this unique group of refugees.
They need significant mental health services and counseling. Indeed the tiny but mighty Afghan-American community is already looking for resources to be able to support their brethren's mental health needs. Read more about the challenges inherent in this work.
And importantly, they need advocates watching out for and being there for them when something goes wrong. Because it will. And I fear at that time, all the goodwill we are seeing now will evaporate in favor of political points.
Some long-term thinking is required to meet the needs of this population and I think we owe it to them to start working on these problems right away.
🎧 Now Playing on the UnfairNation Podcast
Lots of friends have reached out to ask how they can help Afghan refugees. We don't have a shortage of people trying to help, but we do have a shortage of resources. The best thing you can do is to financially support pre-existing efforts to evacuate and support Afghan refugees. Start with veteran-led Team Rubicon, they have the capability and connections to help Afghans overseas and in the U.S. and they are launching relief operations as I write.
Also consider supporting critically important refugee assistance organizations like Tiyya that step in once short-term government aid runs out.
The Scots asked the government for an "innovative and bold" plan to help eradicate poverty.
And they responded. Imagine that.
This month Scotland starts implementing it's universal basic income plan. In addition to Finland, Scotland will be amongst the largest national governments to do so and the results of this effort will be watched eagerly by economists in the U.S.
Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted.