Weeks after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced 98 Afghan refugees would be resettled in Arkansas, five families have relocated to central Arkansas with assistance from faith-based organizations and local sponsors.
Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office is helping to settle 49 individuals within 100 miles of Little Rock, while Canopy Northwest Arkansas, which is affiliated with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, will settle the others.
“We’ve got a family of 10, two families of eight, one family of five and a young adult sibling who had a U.S. connection already in Arkansas,” said Jennifer Verkamp-Ruthven, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services. “More families are coming, probably, within the month.”
The need for resettlement arose following U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict and the rapid return of the Taliban, which created a pressing humanitarian crisis as Afghans who helped overthrow the Islamic militants were forced to leave the country.
More than 50,000 Afghan refugees wait or are waiting in airports and military bases worldwide before being relocated to the United States.
“We’ve heard of a lot of heartbreak,” Verkamp-Ruthven said. “We know some have definitely had family members that have been killed by the Taliban, so there’s lots of trauma. A lot of them, too, left families behind in Afghanistan and are wanting them to be here and that’s just not a simple process.”
Even though the refugees aided the U.S. State and Defense departments, they also have undergone heightened security vetting and comprehensive health screenings and received an appropriate course of vaccinations, Verkamp-Ruthven said.
To protect their identity, Catholic Charities is keeping the families’ names and locations anonymous for now, except to approved sponsor teams. Arkansas Catholic was not allowed to interview the new refugees.
“It’s to protect them,” she said. “We don’t want to throw too much at them. They’ve been here for less than two weeks. There’s a bit of culture shock. A lot of them had to move several times to finally get to where they’re at now. They’ve had to move from temporary housing to more permanent housing. There’s a language barrier; they need to get a better understanding of western culture, and we just want to give them time to decompress, get adjusted to their new situation and not bring up potentially traumatic problems that they’re not ready to speak about yet.”
The Refugee Resettlement Office works with the central Arkansas’ interfaith community to directly help the refugee families, including Christ the King Church, Islamic Institute of Little Rock, Madina Institute and Mosque, Second Presbyterian Church, Second Baptist Church, First United Methodist, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, St. Margaret Episcopal Church and St. Michael Episcopal Church, all of Little Rock; and Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock.
Before these families arrived, Verkamp-Ruthven said her office hadn’t resettled someone in five or six years.
“It’s been really impressive what we’ve been able to pull off in such a short amount of time,” she said. “I’m really proud of our entire team, as well as the sponsor teams.”
For the past two weeks, sponsor teams have welcomed refugee families when they arrive at the airport and helped provide transportation, housing, furnishings and educational and employment opportunities.
“The sponsor teams are working really hard,” she said. “Without the support of these different congregations, we would not be able to do what it is that we’re doing. That’s for sure. Some (refugees) have already found permanent housing and are looking for employment and enrolling their children in school. One has even had a job interview. The rest are trying to find more permanent living arrangements. We’ve already started the process of English second language (ESL) classes.
“In addition, we’ve partnered with UAMS (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) to provide thorough health care screenings – even though they’ve already been screened prior to coming to Arkansas, making sure all vaccines are up to date, getting any medications for those with chronic illness and providing mental health screenings. They’re doing it all for free, so that’s been really incredible.”
Carmel Hanley and Lisa Hayes are the co-leaders of the sponsor team at Immaculate Conception Church. Hanley, parish administrative assistant, has been responsible for organizing the team and donations, while Hayes has been the face-to-face contact with their assigned family since they arrived Oct. 12.
“We’ve all fallen in love with the family,” Hanley said of the sponsor team. “They’re just precious, so sweet.”
The team has relied on interpreters and web-based translation applications to communicate.
“It’s been a learning process,” she said. “We’ve done pretty good with not ever having done anything like this before. And the parishioners have been so generous with donations and furnishing. We’ve gotten them housing, furnished their whole place, provided clothing for the family and we’re interviewing for some job opportunities for the dad.”
Hayes said their arrival has made her more grateful for her life.
“We might never know everything they’ve been through over there, but they’re very joyful. They have been smiling this whole time,” she said. “The one word that describes them is brave. So brave to come with the shirts on their back, with three little children and trying to start a new life over here.
“It’s, of course, been a culture shock for them. When I took the mom to the grocery for the first time, she was very overwhelmed. She had never seen so much food in one place and couldn’t believe we had a whole aisle with nothing but chips. They love ice cream and cheese pizza. They’re very willing to learn and quick to adapt,” she said. “They’ve already picked up words here and there, like thank you and you’re welcome. When I go to their home, they want to reciprocate. They want to show hospitality. They always have food and hot tea available and want to sit and visit.”
Both women said they jumped at the opportunity to work on the sponsor team.
“These are God’s children just like us,” Hanley said. “We’re put here on earth to help everyone. And it doesn’t make a difference that the (refugees) came from a different country. They want a better life for themselves and their kids. They’re just like us, but they were born in a different country with all the turmoil. As Christians, we need to help them.”
Hayes agreed, “This is our calling, to help who we can. To see them so filled with joy, coming from what they come from and starting with nothing, and they’re still filled with joy and so thankful and grateful for everything that we give them. You really feel God’s presence when you’re there.”
Verkamp-Ruthven said the families Catholic Charities are working with are extremely happy to be here.
“One of the families had some friends on the base before they came here, and they called them and said, ‘You have come to Arkansas.’ They are receiving such warm welcomes, feel comfortable and are extremely grateful to start anew here.”
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