Afghans wait in line at the passport office in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 14, 2021.
Afghans wait in line at the passport office in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 14, 2021. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

News of the Taliban overtaking Afghanistan's presidential palace Sunday signaled the end of a fragmented era in Afghanistan-US relations—and the beginning of a new, unpredictable chapter for a nation under the rule of a religious militia group.

For Oregon organizations that contract with the federal government to help refugees resettle in the US, the sobering headlines meant an immediate shift in workload.

"The pace of what happened—I can’t wrap my head around it," said Matthew Westerbeck, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities. "We are all ramping up as fast as we can to prepare. We're about to see an influx of refugee families in a way we haven't seen in this country for years."

Catholic Charities is one of three Oregon agencies that receives funding from the federal government to support refugees seeking to resettle in the US. That work ranges from securing affordable housing for refugee families to connecting refugees with new employers to making sure refugee children feel comfortable at school. With thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan out of fear of its new extremist leadership, these agencies have been told to prepare for an avalanche of newcomers seeking a new community to call home.

Westerbeck said the federal government has estimated the arrival of 21,000 Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs)—visas given to Afghans that worked as a translator or interpreter for US agencies in Afghanistan—and several hundred thousand Afghan nationals seeking asylum in the US in the coming months. He's not sure how many of those individuals and their families will relocate to Oregon. It will likely take months before Afghans fleeing Afghanistan will reach the stage in their application process where they finally move into a new home, whether that's in Oregon or any other state.

"The timeline is really unknown," Westerbeck said. "So we're just wanting to get ready as quickly as possible."

It's one of many unknowns Westerbeck's had to confront this week. Afghans living in Oregon have been calling Catholic Charities and other refugee programs since Sunday with questions about their families stranded in Afghanistan who are seeking asylum in the US. With the abrupt closure of the US embassy in Kabul, Afghans seeking refugee status aren't sure where to turn.

Salah Ansary is the regional director at Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSN), another Oregon refugee resettlement agency funded by the federal government. Ansary said that earlier this week, a man who LCSN helped relocate from Afghanistan two years ago came to his office, visibly distraught.

"He had left behind eight children—all of whom were staying with different family members in Afghanistan," said Ansary. "He had been planning to relocate them to live with him in the US, but he was asking me, 'Now what happens?' His children aren't able to go to another US embassy in a different country, which is the only option right now. I didn't have a good answer."

Ansary's only recourse is reaching out to the offices of Oregon's congressional delegation, who have pledged to assist in evacuations of Afghan refugees and help fast-track visa paperwork that is usually processed through the US embassy.

But he knows this temporary, unofficial fix will not mend the "nightmare of displacement" Ansary sees on the horizon.

It's an ordeal Ansary is deeply familiar with—and not just from his background working at LCSN since the mid-80s. Ansary fled Afghanistan in 1978, at the very start of the country's political upheaval that spurred the Taliban's creation.

"And now, for 40 some years, the country has been in turmoil," said Ansary. "It's been painful to watch. It's unfortunate that nothing has improved the lives of people living in Afghanistan during that time."

He can relate to the fear felt among those fleeing his home country, and was pained to see photographs from the Hamid Karzai International Airport of panicked crowds trying to leave the country.

"It's quite chaotic right now," Ansary said. "We're trying to prepare as best we can for the future."

It doesn't help that refugee resettlement agencies like LCSN and Catholic Charities are emerging from a period of record divestment in their work by the federal government. The Trump administration's strict limits on the number of refugees allowed into the US left resettlement agencies with little funding and stability to support the coming surge in refugees.

Westerbeck said that in 2016, Catholic Charities helped resettle 589 refugees across Oregon. In 2020, that number had dropped to 66.

The resettlement programs have received extra support from the Oregon government over the past several years to make up for the federal gap. But it's still left the programs largely unprepared for the expected capacity need.

To ramp back up for the expected surge in Afghan refugees, Westerbeck said his organization will be seeking donations—to cover newcomers' rent and utility bills—and volunteers—to serve as "cultural navigators" for refugees who need guidance navigating their new environment, to help furnish new apartments, and to greet refugees at the airport. He's also seeking landlords who are willing to offer affordable rentals to refugees or employers who may be open to hiring the newcomers.

Westerbeck, who began at Catholic Charities as a volunteer, said he has faith that the Portland community will step up to support the new refugee residents. It's lightened the heaviness of the past week's headlines.

"It’s been a hard week for our employees, many of whom have lived experience as refugees," he said. "The sadness and grief is really, really hard. But I have confidence that our community will be strong partners in this work, and that drives me and motivates me. I've seen it happen in the past, and I know it can happen again."

State legislators have also pledged to support the resettlement programs. On Tuesday, Oregon Senator Kayse Jama and Representative Khan Pham sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown—signed by dozens of other state legislators—requesting her cooperation in welcoming Afghan refugees to the state.

Brown responded with strong support, pledging to urge the White House to expedite refugee relocation and increase the country's cap on the number of refugees it accepts annually. The current refugee cap was set at 62,500 per year by President Joe Biden in May. Trump had set the yearly cap at 15,000.

"Oregon is ready to welcome our refugee sisters and brothers from Afghanistan, and the rest of the world," wrote Brown in a Wednesday press release. "I am hopeful the Biden-Harris administration, along with Congress, will lift refugee admission caps and take other emergency humanitarian actions to save lives."

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Learn more about how to help incoming refugees in Oregon through the following agencies:

Catholic Charities Refugee Services

Lutheran Community Services Northwest — Refugee Resettlement Program

Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon — Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees