As refugees pour out of Ukraine in the latest global conflict, people who left war-torn Afghanistan last summer are arriving in Santa Fe, with nearly 60 people already in the city.
The scope of the task ahead—ensuring housing and other services for people who came to the US with very little—is massive. Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains leads the effort in New Mexico, an agency that’s a local offshoot of the larger Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is one of nine resettlement nonprofits nationwide partnered with the federal government.
“Some of our clients that we’ve sent up to Santa Fe have a higher education, they’re either electrical engineers or architects,” says Jeff Hall, economic development programs manager at the local Lutheran office. “They’ve fled their country and there’s not a way they can really access any capital or assets they had there, so literally clothes on their backs, whatever they threw in that bag, that’s what they have.”
The US military evacuated more than 76,000 Afghans fleeing their country last August after the Taliban took control. The refugees lived in makeshift camps on bases including Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo and Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Complex southeast of Las Cruces. The last group left a base in New Jersey on Feb. 19.
The Afghan resettlement effort marks Lutheran Family Services’ first dedicated endeavor in Santa Fe.
There hasn’t been much of a demand for the agency’s services up until now, Hall tells SFR, in part because most refugees who have resettled in the city are Spanish-speaking, and there are already a handful of services for them.
But the urgent need to find housing for Afghans coupled with an outpouring of local support compelled the agency to extend its reach.
“The community has shown a lot of support in the refugee resettlement effort, which is always crucial in the decision to start resettling refugees,” Hall says. “Our agency can fulfill a pretty large role but it takes the entire community, or at least a few partners within the community, in order to make sure it’s a success.”
Santa Feans’ good will for their new neighbors is evident.
The Southside branch of the city’s public library is planning a Persian New Year event to celebrate the arrival of the refugees, set for 1 pm on March 19. A table at the front entrance displays welcome notes, pictured in a recent Facebook post from the library. One reads: “Welcome to Santa Fe! I hope you make a good home here + find many things to love.”
Afghan refugees face a wide range of challenges in Santa Fe and nationwide, including housing, employment and difficult paths to citizenship. They have safety and privacy concerns as well—to the extent that SFR was unable to find any who would agree to speak about their experiences.
Locating housing is the Lutheran agency’s top priority.
Some refugees have been staying at rental properties. Shortly after evacuations began, Airbnb announced it would temporarily house 20,000 Afghans by partnering with hosts who agreed to open their properties to refugees for free or at a discount.
Finding permanent housing, meanwhile, is a tedious, time-consuming process—and Santa Fe’s housing crisis hasn’t helped.
Hall describes agency staff scouring listing websites, rushing to ensure they’re submitting the first applications when apartments or houses become available and meeting with landlords, who are sometimes not willing to rent to people without Social Security numbers or rental histories.
About 200 Afghans are living in Albuquerque, including up to 40 who might come to Santa Fe.
Refugees get a one-time federal stipend of $1,225 per person to cover expenses, so employment is next on the list. Business owners who are interested in employing refugees may write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of the new arrivals are eager to start working, not only to cover their own costs.
“Many of the men were anxious to get going in America so that they could get a job to send money back to their loved ones in Afghanistan,” says Matt McKeon, a Department of Homeland Security coordinator who worked at Holloman’s Aman Omid Village, which housed 7,100 refugees, the last of whom departed on Jan. 26.
With pressing basic needs, another concern has taken a backseat, at least for now: citizenship.
Afghans who were evacuated last year have a status called humanitarian parole. It allows them to live and work in the US for two years, but it doesn’t provide permanent residency.
They can apply for asylum, but that’s a lengthy and complex process. There’s also a backlog of more than 400,000 such cases pending in the federal system, with an average processing time of four years.
Asylum cases often require significant legal assistance, and local organizations—such as the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center—could soon be overwhelmed.
“Right now it just depends on the number,” says Jasmine McGee, the center’s managing attorney, when asked if meeting the demand is expected to be an issue. “If there were 400 people, we’d never be able to keep up with that. If there were, say, 12 families, I think we could probably help them.”
The center is just beginning to see a need for its services from newly-arrived Afghans, says Emma Race, manager of intakes, partnerships and social services.
“It seems like people were being released [from military bases] and kind of getting more urgent things taken care of and now I think the demand will be picking up,” Race tells SFR, adding that the center has received 23 inquiries from Afghans since Jan. 1.
Immigration advocates are calling for Congress to pass the yet-to-be-introduced Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow Afghans who have humanitarian parole to apply to become permanent residents after one year in the US.
Another challenge, this one mostly for younger arrivals, is adjusting to schools.
Santa Fe Public Schools has received nine Afghan students, ranging in age from 5 to 17, spokesman Cody Dynarski tells SFR. They are now counted among 226 students in the district considered newcomers, meaning they aren’t from the US and have limited English proficiency.
The district has for years had a plan called “Newcomer Students,” a collaborative effort between the Language and Culture and Equity, Diversity and Engagement departments, and newly-arrived Afghan kids are already involved.
“This isn’t much different from the services that we already provide,” says Lisa Vigil, director of the Language and Culture Department. “This will just be adding to the diversity within our student population. We’ve been training our teachers annually for years according to the requirements by the federal government and the state on English-language acquisition.”