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When Danilo Aguilar, director of refugee services at Della Lamb Community Services, receives word that new refugees have been assigned to Kansas City, he gets to work ensuring that the new arrivals will have a place to live, food and furniture.
He contacts any family members who may already be living in the area, referred to officially as a “U.S. tie,” to see if they can offer any help — whether it be housing or even a warm meal.
After that, Aguilar’s top priority is to find housing. Della Lamb, Jewish Vocational Service and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas — the region’s three main resettlement agencies — have lists of landlords and apartment managers who have offered housing to refugees in the past.
Finally, with the help of donations and volunteers from the community, Della Lamb’s staff furnishes the apartment, stocks the refrigerator and pantry, and welcomes the new residents when they arrive at Kansas City International Airport.
In the past, resettlement agencies usually had two or three weeks to get a family set up. But with many of the emergency evacuations from Afghanistan over the past month, this process has been shortened to just 48 to 72 hours.
“It’s going to be crazy, which is why we need help,” Aguilar said.
Refugee resettlement organizations facing challenges with capacity
The rapid turnaround is just one of several challenges that refugee resettlement agencies in Kansas City will be facing in coming months, as their caseloads increase for the first time since former President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
Over the past five years, the number of refugees resettled in Missouri has decreased from 2,072 in 2016 to 680 in 2019 and just 216 last year. According to data obtained by The Associated Press, Missouri is scheduled to receive 1,200 Afghan evacuees, and Kansas is expected to receive 490. According to Della Lamb, 550 of Missouri’s evacuees will be settled in Kansas City, 350 in St. Louis and 300 in Columbia.
“I think we’re all very energized by this. We’re really trying to just be solution-focused,” said Kasey Featherston, director of refugee and immigration services at the Kansas City, Kansas, office of Catholic Charities.
“We all got into refugee resettlement because we wanted to help people with this transition period in their lives, to help them orient to the United States and help them find their way,” she said. “We feel honored. Yes, there are challenges ahead. But I think we’re ready for them and ready to do the work.”
But refugee resettlement is never an easy process. And housing shortages and lack of adequate government assistance loom as challenges. The first Afghan refugee family after the Taliban’s takeover arrived in Kansas City last week, and more are expected this fall.
Afghan evacuees left without access to government programs
Usually, refugees undergo a yearslong process that includes background checks and temporary resettlement in refugee camps around the world. The process for recent Afghan evacuees is different.
While some Afghan refugees are offered special immigrant visas for their support of the U.S. military, the majority of Afghan evacuees are being offered “humanitarian parole” under Operation Allies Refuge — the name for the recent airlift out of Afghanistan. Because “parolee” has a negative connotation here, Aguilar said resettlement agencies prefer to refer to the new arrivals as “Afghan evacuees.”
Because evacuees under humanitarian parole are not technically refugees, they do not qualify for the government assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, such as cash assistance and food assistance, with the exception of children.
As a result, the incoming evacuees without special immigrant visas will only receive a one-time payment of $1,225 per person and possibly food benefits—though food benefit eligibility is unclear. All other needs must be provided for by nonprofit organizations such as Della Lamb, Catholic Charities and Jewish Vocational Service. This includes healthcare, which must be provided by charities and nonprofits, according to Della Lamb.
Housing crisis in Kansas City leaves fewer affordable options
Housing is always one of the biggest challenges for refugee resettlement. Not only will landlords need to accommodate families who lack credit history, but these properties also must be affordable and large enough to accommodate households of sometimes more than eight people. Kansas City’s recent spike in rents will make the task of finding housing more difficult.
“We can’t put somebody in the house reasonably if they’re gonna charge $2,500 and up,” Aguilar said. “We don’t know if they’re going to be able to afford that. But we can’t basically set somebody up for failure; that’s not what we’re trying to do. So that’s why the housing stock is hard.”
Featherston said refugees often find employment quickly and rarely face eviction. Catholic Charities has been reaching out to landlords and property managers to expand its list of housing options for evacuees.
For the time being, none of the agencies in Kansas City is considering placing families in volunteers’ homes, though they appreciate the generosity of those who offer. Some agencies have partnered with other local nonprofits to line up temporary housing if needed.
Evacuees nonetheless relieved to have a fresh start
Aguilar and Featherston acknowledged that some Kansas Citians may have concerns about the cost of government assistance for refugee families. But most new arrivals quickly get on their feet and ultimately contribute far more to the economy than they initially take in.
Most are excited to start work or school, some of them for the first time.
“I remember once having a client that, I think he was like 68 or 69, and he came to English classes every day, and he came to the cultural orientations every day,” Featherston said. “He was so excited when he started going to the community college. And then he continued to work on his education.”
At the same time, refugees bring with them the anxieties associated with losing their homes and lives, often in an abrupt and violent fashion. They fear for family members still living in the places they left. Years after resettlement, refugees are still asking what they can do to bring their families here or keep them safe at home.
“Like any immigrant story, they live a transnational existence — they’re in two spaces at once,” Aguilar said. “So you have to recognize that there is joy, but there’s also sorrow at leaving your loved ones behind. Because there’s only 1% of the entire group that really makes it, you’re leaving your large extended family over there, even though you’re here. So you have to live with that.”