In the past decade, Washington has become one of the most welcoming US states for refugees. As residents prepare for a new wave from Afghanistan, Andrew Buncombe speaks to arrivals and activists about the challenges they face
Navid Hamidi spent seven years working as a translator for US special forces in Afghanistan.
The work, dangerous and frequently disturbing, took him to every corner of his country. He spent a lot of time in Helmand province, which at the time was considered one of the most perilous places on the planet.
Yet, when he arrived in Seattle as a refugee, he found himself engaged in a series of new battles; he struggled to figure out how even the most basic things worked, there was a huge culture shock, and what was it with all that rain?
“The culture shock was so real, and everything looked so massive,” he tells The Independent. “How did I get from one point to another? How did I find the doctor’s office? How did I get from my apartment to an appointment with a resource agency?”
He adds: “It’s all looked so complicated. I never thought I’d be able to figure it out.”
That was in 2014.
In the years since, Hamidi has completed university, obtained a degree, worked in public health and got married and become a father to two children. In the middle of the Covid pandemic he started a non-profit organisation, the Afghan Health Initiative, to educate members of the Afghan-American community, as to what resources are available to them.
As such, he is now part of a network of individuals and organisations preparing to welcome as many as many as 6,000 new refugees from Afghanistan over the next few months. Like him, they are fleeing a conflict that has killed countless thousands of Afghan civilians, and either displaced or forced from the country many thousands more.
Figures show that for a decade or more, Washington has been among the most welcoming states for refugees, along with places such as Ohio, Texas, New York and California.
During the presidency of Donald Trump, who frequently used anti-immigrant rhetoric, and pushed through executive orders such as the Muslim Travel Ban, the number of refugees America accepted fell to just 12,000. This was a sharp fall from the totals of 70,000 or more a few years before, and dramatic fall-off since the 207,000 that arrived in the US in 1980, the year that the formal resettlement programme was started.
Yet, even during the Trump years, communities and politicians across the state of Washington sought to keep their doors open.
This summer, as Joe Biden announced he was pulling US troops when Afghanistan, and in doing so ending a 20-year occupation by western forces, it resulted in scenes of chaos after the Taliban rapidly retook control of the country.
As Biden sought to meet the 31 August deadline to fly out of Kabul as many Americans and others as he could, thousands rushed to the airport. Several Afghans lost their lives when they clambered onto the fuselage of the departing jets, only to fall to their deaths.
Against this backdrop, Washington’s governor, Democrat Jay Inslee, wrote to Biden, and underscored the state’s determination to offer a safe haven to those who required it.
He said that since 1975, his state had welcomed nearly 150,000 refugees from 70 different countries.
“In the past decade, almost 5,000 of these refugees have hailed from Afghanistan. Carrying with them the trauma of war, they nonetheless contribute significantly to our state in varied professional fields, including home care, retail, healthcare, financial planning and transportation,” he wrote.
He said that anticipating a new flood of refugees, state and local agencies were mobilising to coordinate resettlement services, financial help and housing. He assured the president, there was a “groundswell of support” from companies, community organisations, and individuals, all offering either time and resources to the relief effort.
“I am heartened by the news that Washington will have another opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to embrace those in need,” he said.
Hamidi, 32, the translator who said he risked his life, working with just a borrowed flak jacket and a “crappy helmet” for $6,000 each month, was brought to Washington by the International Rescue Committee.
It is one of five agencies in Washington that work to welcome new arrivals, the others being Jewish Family Services (JFS), World Relief, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Episcopal Migration Ministries.
Kristin Winkel is the acting CEO of JFS in Seattle, and says the current situation is like nothing she has seen before.
Since August, JFS has helped welcome 100 Afghans and their families with so-called Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans (SIVs), which were typically given to people who worked with the US military or American organisations. For the whole of 2020, she says, the number was 200 families.
“We’re a very welcoming community in Washington state, from the governor on down,” she says. “The fact there is already an established Afghan American community here makes it a natural place for others to come.”
Winkel, who says the JFS was established in large part to help refugees, says what has also struck her about the current situation, is that the large number of new arrivals has been matched by the enthusiasm among ordinary citizens to welcome them.
She believes sympathy and support for the Afghan SIVs is something that cuts across political lines.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re Republican or Democratic. These are the folks that fought alongside the US military in war,” she says.
“And to leave them behind, or to see them unable to get out, feels like we as Americans, regardless of our political philosophy, have this moral obligation to be able to support them.”
She adds: “I think that really factors into what we’re seeing now, in terms of the response. It is another level altogether.”
Some estimates suggest Washington state could see as many as 6,000 new Afghan arrivals over the coming months, depending on the progress at which their paperwork is processed. Officials say some of those Afghans are still in Qatar, while others are in Germany or else the Fort Lee army base in Virginia.
But not everyone is welcoming. Some conservatives have tried to use the issue to attack the president.
One of those with a large influential platform and a scathing view of the new influx of arrivals is Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Last month, Carlson, who some believe could challenge for the Republican nomination for president in 2024, said if “history was any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in coming months, probably in your neighbourhood”.
He added: “And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade and then we’re invaded.”
Dan Pfeiffer, who served as Barack Obama’s senior advisor for strategy and communications, recently warned Democrats that Republicans may seek to turn the refugee issue into a political cudgel in the run-up to the midterms of 2022.
While polls suggested a large majority of Americans welcomed helping the Afghans, those numbers could change.
“Right-wing nativist Republicans are already licking their chops at the prospect of demagoguing these American allies. The resettlement of Afghans in the United States allows Republicans to participate in their two favourite hobbies: demonising non-white immigrants and the continued fear-mongering of Muslims,” he wrote.
“These are the driving forces of 21st-century conservatism. The intractable pull of this toxic, racist fear-mongering is what led Donald Trump to adopt the Muslim ban during his 2016 campaign.”
Many of those working with the refugees say it is vital to counter any fears or false perceptions, by trying to educate people about the new arrivals and setting a good example.
Hamidi says Afghans fleeing Afghanistan now are not doing so by choice, but as the result of a war started by the US. The refugees have no desire to impose Sharia law. Indeed, it is such extremism that they are escaping.
“When you reach a safe place, a new home, all you want is stability and peace,” he says. “And don’t want to just connect yourself with those radical ideas.”
One major challenge for new arrivals, particularly those coming to Washington, which in places such as Seattle suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, is finding a place to live.
Medard Ngueita, resettlement director with World Relief, says it is the base from which everything else can grow. If you do not have a safe place to live it is difficult to work; if you don’t have a place to live, you cannot enrol your children in school.
“Housing here isn’t just about accessibility, or vacancies in the area. So it’s not just about the shortage, but it’s also about the cost. The rent in our area is super expensive,” says Ngueita, who came to Seattle from Chad in 2006 after obtaining political asylum.
Refugees competing in this market also suffer from not having a credit score or a rental history, things that private landlords always insist on. Already facing a million new challenges as they get here, the speed of their settling can be severely hampered, says Ngueita, whose organisation works with the new arrivals to find accommodation.
Asked how he feels when he hears fear-mongers use words such as “invaders”, he says free speech is part of the fabric of America.
“But when you have a position where you can speak, and other people can hear you, we really have to be careful about [the picture] we’re painting of human beings,” he says.
“We’re talking about human beings here, not animals. People calling them invaders are ignoring the fact that these very people are the people who protected us for years, alongside Americans, in their own country.”
He adds: “Now, their country is falling and we have the opportunity to show them that we are grateful for their service, to show them we are appreciative of them for them standing up and helping us to defend the rest of the world.”
Chitra Hanstad, executive director for World Relief Seattle, says the organisation has been here since 1979.
She says among the first arrivals the group helped with were refugees from the war in Vietnam.
“When crises arise all over the world, we have a different blend of refugees, depending on what the latest crisis is,” she says. “You know, Somalis, or folks from Congo. It depends where the crisis is.”
What does she think it is that makes Washington state and the Pacific Northwest so welcoming?
She says partly it is the history of having progressive governors.
“Also, I think partly because Amazon and Microsoft and Boeing have really shown us the value of immigration and diversity,” she says.
“I don’t think we’re scared of it. I think we see how it grows our economy and actually drives economic growth.”
She adds: “As an immigrant myself … I know the folks that come here and start over as refugees are twice as entrepreneurial as the general population. There’s a lot of amazing businesses that have been started by refugees.”