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Refugees walk through the departure terminal to a bus at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31. The Department of Defense announced that the U.S. military had completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending 20 years of war. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

[The Episcopal News] As time runs out to evacuate vulnerable Afghans from the Taliban-controlled country, frantic callers have flooded the diocesan Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS) offices in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village, desperately seeking answers and aid for family members still trapped in the country.

“The phones are ringing nonstop,” according to Meghan Taylor, executive director. “It’s heroic work. Our clients are calling us, trying to get their relatives still in Afghanistan on a plane, in addition to (our) assisting those that are arriving in our office right now.”

The humanitarian crisis poses additional strains to a system already challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic and previous budget and staffing cuts. “At one point, we had 23 people on our staff,” Taylor told The Episcopal News on Aug. 26. “Now, we have six, plus two interns. The infrastructure for the U.S. resettlement program nationwide to respond to a crisis like this was wiped out during the last administration.”

Although COVID-19 protocols have meant the office is open for appointments only, except for Friday naturalization workshops and food pantry, “a lot of people are showing up at our doors,” added Taylor. Meanwhile, agency staff have feverishly processed paperwork ahead of an additional, unrelated August 30 deadline for religious refugees from Iran.

“We have filed more than 250 applications for religious minorities, and we probably have another hundred people on a waitlist,” Taylor said of the deadline. “Our phones do not stop ringing for that program, which is completely unrelated to Afghanistan.”

“The situation in Iran is terrible. People are desperate, and we want to help everyone we can. They are begging us to take their cases,” says Hilda Sarkisian, IRIS’ refugee program supervisor.

Since the beginning of 2021 IRIS has aided 50 Afghan individuals from 13 families. Of these, 31 individuals in 11 families have arrived since June “when we began to see more Afghan special immigrant visa holders just walk into our office,” Taylor said. “Those who had the means to purchase their own plane tickets and not wait for the government to evacuate them began to arrive in the United States at that time and were able to visit resettlement affiliates like IRIS to request assistance.”

IRIS, one of two diocesan affiliates to Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement wing of The Episcopal Church (the other is in the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia), in June began receiving an increase in referrals for incoming Afghan cases.

“We would get a phone call at 9 a.m., saying that we had to pick up a refugee family at three o’clock that afternoon,” Taylor recalled. “We’d have to figure out our schedules to pick them up at the airport, where to house and how to assist them” while the staff is also engaged with other agency programs.

“Because of our downsizing, our staff was also managing immigration legal services appointments at the same time,” Taylor said. “It’s hard for us to just clear our calendars (for pickups and other services) but that’s what we’ve been doing, as best as possible.”

Bishop John Harvey Taylor (no relation to Meghan Taylor) praised the heroic work of IRIS. “Beginning in 2017, in the worst possible political climate for those caring for refugees to our shores, some agencies had to close,” he said. “Our creative, flexible IRIS colleagues, supported by all in our diocese, kept a light in the window, and I give thanks they did. As they now respond to the crisis in Afghanistan, let’s keep IRIS and those they serve in our prayers and support them with our donations.”

Contributions to support IRIS’s ministry with Afghan and other refugees may be made here.

IRIS’s work includes long hours in a wildly fluid and chaotic context, like seeking information for former Afghan clients desperately trying to get relatives and friends out of the country; offering advice on how to erase social media and online presences, instructions on how to access assistance inside Afghanistan, and how to determine eligibility to leave.

“We’re just trying to support and encourage our clients. We’re doing everything that we can to, to help them. But also at the same time, you know, it’s very difficult to help from here,” Meghan Taylor said. “There’s not a ton that we can do, other than share the information that we have and collect the names and information of the people that we’re aware of that are still in the country and to advise them on where to go and how to seek safety and how to try and apply for a visa.”

IRIS staff members are resettling refugees from Armenia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Uganda, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Iran, and Iraq, yet also are working tirelessly to aid the Afghan people.

Additionally, agency staff make virtual home visits, or meet with clients in driveways, doorways and online.

“They are so dedicated,” Taylor said. “They do this because they came to the United States, all of them – except for me – as refugees. They feel like they are giving back to the program that saved their life, and they’re very proud of the work they do. They never turn anybody away. Each one of them is incredible; each one does the work of 50 people.”

“I am grateful to Meghan and all the staff at IRIS for their deft handling of this crisis,” Canon to the Ordinary Melissa McCarthy told The News. “Meghan has a particular gift for helping others understand the red tape of resettling refugees and asylees, effectively assuaging fears and inspiring participation. Her heart for and commitment to this work, along with her skilled and dedicated staff, make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable, and I know they will have a big impact on those being settled here from Afghanistan.”

Episcopal Migration Ministries leads churchwide efforts to assist refugees

Since 2005, IRIS has resettled some 15,000 refugees in the greater Los Angeles area. The agency is an affiliate of The Episcopal Church’s Episcopal Migration Ministries, which through local affiliates like IRIS has helped some 97,000 refugees to resettle and thrive since the late 1800s.

EMM’s overall infrastructure has also shrunk, from 31 affiliates to about 12, in the past four years, according to Allison Duvall, EMM senior manager for church relations and engagement.

“Local offices and the national agencies are severely short-staffed and while we are trying to rebuild our resettlement infrastructure, we are also facing this crisis,” Duvall said in an Aug. 27 “Neighbors Welcome” webinar (https://vimeo.com/593490579) appealing for support and patience. “We are all scrambling to create the systems and the mechanisms by which we can get you the information that you need to take actions that we need your help taking.”

“This is not a normal resettlement,” Duvall said. “Refugee resettlement is a months- and years-long process that requires a significant amount of planning and coordination. Resettlement agencies and our local affiliates plan months and years in advance to prepare to receive individuals from different countries around the world who are fleeing persecution.”

Typically, refugees being resettled through the U.S. State Department and agencies like EMM and IRIS are eligible for federal benefits to help get established and thrive in their new environment.

For example, IRIS’s services range from picking up refugees at the airport, securing lodging, furniture, food, congregational and other support, enrolling clients in English as a Second Language and citizenship classes, assisting in school enrollment for children, and other ongoing case management, such as medical and dental health assessments, access to job counseling, and employment training and placement, Taylor said.

Duvall said there are three ways Afghan citizens will arrive in the U.S. They include the Special Immigrant Visa Program, which was created to provide pathways to protection for Afghan and Iraqi individuals who served alongside U.S. Armed Forces abroad.

SIV status includes eligibility for resettlement agency services for up to five years. A second category, “P-2 designation as refugees,” also offers access to resettlement agency services, Duvall said.

But a large number will arrive with “parolee” status and will only be eligible for support for the first 30 to 90 days after their arrival under a new U.S. State Department program called Afghan Parolee Service Program. “The reason they are coming on that status is because this is a true emergency to get people out as quickly as possible and also to make it possible for them to come to the United States,” Duvall explained.

Those with parolee status “will need a significant amount of support” until they can apply for asylum, she said. “This is a humanitarian emergency. We are being asked to step forward and step up and stand up … really, within a week’s time,” Duvall said. “We need our community, we need you, we need congregations, individuals, to step forward to offer various types of support.”

Kendall Martin, EMM senior communications manager, said the church’s new fund, “Neighbors Welcome,” will help provide housing assistance, medical services and financial support for basic necessities, as well as ongoing support to congregations and individuals who commit to sponsoring Afghans.

Also included in the webinar, were representatives of The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations, which through its Episcopal Public Policy Network has urged Episcopalians to contact Congressional leaders to urge the Biden Administration to step up efforts to resettle Afghan citizens.

How to help IRIS assist refugees

Taylor said congregational support is urgently needed, particularly financial assistance and housing. “If anybody has a landlord relationship or has a back house or owns a complex, we need housing, we need access to housing,” she said. “We’re not currently able to cosign on apartments, which is a requirement for most apartment complexes here. So, it’s been difficult to find housing, especially since a lot of our Afghan clients live in low-income Section 8 housing and can’t have visitors staying with them.

“That’s been a hurdle that we’ve been trying to overcome,” she added. “For the parolee Afghans, the State Department is saying that they are going to accept nontraditional housing situations that they wouldn’t allow in our refugee resettlement program. So churches that, for example, want to convert their hall to be a temporary housing situation, they would be open to that. If we have any congregations that want to do that, that would be helpful.”

Also needed are volunteers to assist with airport pickup and transportation of clients to appointments. “If we have people in our congregations that are medical professionals, or dentists, it would be helpful because [parolees] may not be eligible for medical assistance.

Taylor said the IRIS staff, though unclear about the numbers of arrivals they might experience, stands ready to help as much as possible.

The current crisis is a reminder of “the importance of the U.S. refugee admissions program, and how strong we can be,” she added. “And that we are gearing up and we will respond to this, we will meet this need. It’s not going to be an easy couple of months, but it’s just what we do. This is welcoming the stranger. It’s what we’re called to do. We will get through this and be stronger on the other side.”

The crisis also highlights the importance of maintaining a viable infrastructure and set boundaries for refugee admissions in case of such crises, “So that every time a president goes in and out of office, they can’t change the ceiling, from 100,000 to 15,000 refugees,” as the Trump Administration did, Taylor said.

IRIS continues to aid the vulnerable, Taylor said. “Anytime our clients have a question, they call us for years after their arrival. And we reach out to them; when coming up to their one-year anniversary of arrival to apply for their green card, we assist with that. We’re able to do that for free through our immigration contract with the state. And then again, we are in contact with them around the five-year anniversary of their arrival, to help them apply to become U.S. citizens.

Recently, during the pandemic, “we reached out to all of our arrivals from the last five years. We had an outreach grant to provide them education on COVID and add stimulus funds, to talk to them about the eviction protection and to just be a resource to them about their ability to get tested and to access the vaccine.”