Washington state welcomes Afghan refugees

Government, business, non-profit organizations are continuing the state’s long tradition of supporting refugees

Ever since Gov. Dan Evans stood behind South Vietnamese allies fleeing their homeland after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Washington has become a steadfast supporter of our nation’s refugee program.

Much like the Vietnamese who aided American troops, allies in Afghanistan are need support and assistance. President Biden, recognizing the dire circumstances, created “Operation Allies Welcome,” a multi-agency effort to the safe and rapid evacuation of Afghan nationals.

Washington state is stepping up and doing its part.

Gov. Jay Inslee joined businesses, advocates and other leaders who are leading the way on Friday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The governor underscored that Washington is a place of belonging, ready to welcome all arriving Afghans and speaking out the recent upswing in violence against immigrant and Muslim communities.

Gov. Jay Inslee joins community and business leaders at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, October 22, 2021. (Office of the Governor)

He was joined in the airport’s “Welcoming Center,” a dedicated space where newly arriving Afghans are greeted by local support organizations, by representatives from the Port of Seattle, Microsoft, Airbnb, Amazon and Muslim Association of Puget Sound.

Afterward, the governor joined members of Washington’s Afghan community for a discussion, where he heard about their local community and family members still in Afghanistan.

“I recognize the incredibly challenging situation faced by everyone involved, whether our Afghan neighbors and friends, our veterans who served alongside them, or our federal, state, and local partners. I am, nonetheless, profoundly inspired by the collective effort to ensure safety and opportunity for the evacuees, and I am eager to watch these new Washingtonians flourish,” said Inslee.

Resettling so many individuals within a short timeframe is challenging and requires coordination between federal departments, refugee resettlement agencies, state and local officials, community organizations, and private donors. With more than 60,000 Afghan arrivals nationally, the federal government is seeking to resettle more than a years’ worth of refugees in three months.

Washington has already welcomed 1,105 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in federal fiscal year 2021. Another 1,679 Afghans are expected this winter. Much of the work falls to refugee resettlement agencies, who are already impacted by the pandemic, reduced capacity caused by the previous federal administration, and hiring obstacles.

In response, the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance which is housed at the state Department of Social and Health Services has created a close partnership with the Muslim Association of Puget Sound to quickly survey and act when urgent issues arise.

“Our office has a long history of partnering with refugee resettlement agencies and other community-based organizations to provide support services to refugees and immigrants to rebuild their lives in our local communities. We will rely on our existing relationships and work to strengthen them as we uplift and elevate the work of our Afghan American lead organizations to welcome our new neighbors,” said Sarah Peterson, Washington’s State Refugee Coordinator.

Also on Friday, the governor issued a letter to Jack Markell, White House Coordinator for “Operation Allies Welcome.” Inslee thanked the federal administration for its ongoing work evacuating Afghans and finding them homes stateside. He also urged the administration to champion permanent status for all who are granted temporary status in the United States.

Consistent with his deep concern for the well-being of all Washington immigrants, Gov. Inslee issued a separate letter on Friday. The letter responds to the Department of Homeland Security’s request for feedback on the public charge rule. The previous federal administration sought to advance an ominous version of a rarely used standard that prevents immigrants, who may have accessed public benefits, from obtaining permanent residency. This menacing proposition caused fear to ripple through immigrant communities, fear that complicated Washington’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor was joined by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Pam MacEwan, chief executive officer of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange; and Sarah Peterson, Washington’s State Refugee Coordinator, all of whom submitted letters advocating on behalf of immigrant communities. Their letters are found here, here, and here.

Notably, numerous non-profit organizations, foundations, and businesses have pledged their resources to this work. In Washington, the Seattle Foundation is working to promote donations; Airbnb, Alaska Airlines, and Microsoft are already making financial and in-kind contributions to the effort; and several others have identified ways to aid people once they are settled.

Starbucks, for example, has a long history of partnering with others to provide opportunities and welcome refugees in the communities where it serves, including Washington state. The company continues to pursue its goal of hiring 10,000 refugees across the globe. Knowing that partnerships are key to comprehensive support, the Starbucks Foundation has joined efforts with Welcome.US and has provided grants for nonprofit organizations helping Afghan refugee resettlement and integration like IRC Seattle, No One Left Behind and more.

Other community and business partnerships

“Airbnb and Airbnb.org have been supporting refugees and other displaced people for almost a decade. We know Washington state will be a top destination for Afghan newcomers, and the need for temporary housing will only continue to grow. Airbnb wants to do its part to help meet those needs, and has dedicated funding to resettlement partners working in the State of Washington to help them provide temporary housing to arriving Afghan refugees,” said Ayisha Irfan, Senior Policy Manager, Airbnb.

“We’re proud of Alaska’s recent participation in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet evacuating Afghan refugees. Our employees stepped up to provide remarkable care to the refugees who fled their country seeking safety in ours,” said Constance von Muehlen, Chief Operating Officer, Alaska Airlines, “This was a mission of mercy, and as refugees now join us locally, we’re delighted to welcome them. We’ll continue to support our caring employees’ generosity for organizations assisting Afghan refugees in the communities where we live and work throughout Washington state and the U.S.”

“Amazon was an early supporter of All in WA because it created a way to collaborate to address needs during the pandemic. Supporting newly arriving Afghan families in Washington is another moment to swiftly join together,” said Alice Shobe, Global Director, Amazon in the Community. “In addition to contributing funding to All in WA, Amazon is providing jobs to Afghan refugees and paying for training and education, such as college tuition or English language courses.”

“We believe that technology plays a critical role in supporting refugees and displaced people,” said Kate Behncken, vice president of Microsoft Philanthropies. “Over the long-term, Microsoft is committed to helping Afghan refugees reach their full potential and pursue a new future in the U.S. That means providing access to skilling services and connections to job opportunities, and helping Afghan refugees build a community here in Washington state. We’re partnering with organizations such as MAPS, International Rescue Committee, International Refugee Assistance Project and Upwardly Global to provide those short term needs like housing support and legal representation while also helping them develop the skills they need to restart their careers here in the U.S.”

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