Churches and advocacy groups have rallied to help hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan settle in Oregon in the past two years. And with more arriving, the state is offering to help them get settled.
The Oregon Department of Human Services’ Refugee Program recently announced it has $3.6 million in grants for services like housing assistance, health care, youth mentoring and legal assistance for refugees from Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban in 2021 after two decades of war.
More than 1,400 refugees have arrived in Oregon from Afghanistan since August 2021, looking to start a new life away from the shadow of war and turmoil, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services. That month, the Department of State started a program to allow Afghans to settle in the U.S. if they have worked for the U.S. government or U.S.-based media outlets and other non-government organizations, such as humanitarian groups.
Some have worked as translators or helped the U.S. government or military during the war in Afghanistan.
The state administers cash and medical benefits to refugees through the Oregon Department of Human Services Refugee Program and has served more than 7,000 people from around the world in the past year, said Vanessa Vanderzee, a spokesperson for the state agency. The grant money is a combination of federal and state funding, Vanderzee said.
The program also contracts with community organizations and resettlement agencies to provide services to help refugees find a place to live, employment and other needs.
Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, a Portland-based resettlement agency with a statewide reach, helped more than 700 arrivals from Afghanistan in 2022, the group said in its annual report. In Washington County, the group’s Greater Middle East Center welcomes refugees from Afghanistan and other nations in that region of the globe and connects them to resources to find housing, health care, schools and other services.
There is a high need for legal services for people from Afghanistan and housing, along with health care and food assistance, said Jenny Bremner, director of development and communications for IRCO.
“The housing challenges in Oregon have directly impacted our Afghan refugees,” Bremner said in an email. “We continue to focus on housing navigation, rental assistance, and other supports in our services, as finding adequate housing – especially for families – has been a challenge.”
Lutheran Community Services Northwest is another of the six resettlement agencies in Oregon that work with people who arrive from Afghanistan. In the last two years, the organization has helped hundreds of Afghans resettle in the Portland area.
Leaving family behind
Salah Ansary, the group’s director of advocacy and government affairs, came to Portland in 1978 from Afghanistan amid a communist coup shortly before the Soviet Union invaded the country a year later. Because many have worked with the U.S. government, usually each family has at least one member who can speak English, which helps employment prospects, Ansary said.
But refugees also need affordable housing and behavioral health care due to the trauma they endured from war, Ansary said. And many leave loved ones behind.
“Some people still have close family ties back home, and given this situation in Afghanistan, it’s hard to find the way that people can be reunited,” he said. “That’s a huge obstacle.”
The good news: Oregon has a strong record of welcoming refugees, whether from Afghanistan or elsewhere, Ansary said.
“Traditionally, the state of Oregon has always been very receptive and very helpful when it comes to refugees,” he said.
That translates into a willingness to help refugees on a personal level. At St. James Lutheran Church in Portland, the congregation pitched in to help a family of six from Afghanistan, said Cathie Coffman, a volunteer and member of the church.
The church members purchased clothing and gift cards to help the family around Christmas. The church also donated children’s books as the family amassed a small library. When Coffman visited with the mother in January, other needs were obvious.
“I asked her if there was anything else they really needed, and she said that the children were all sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags because they didn’t have any beds,” Coffman said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle.
The church purchased beds from IKEA for the family and members assembled them. From there, Coffman and others stayed in touch.
“They want to learn and want to be citizens of the United States,” Coffman said.
Apply for a grant
For information on applying for a grant, organizations will need to submit an application and budget summary. The deadline to apply is Nov. 10. A virtual information session regarding this funding will take place on Nov. 3, 2023. Details are available with the application.
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Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.