From mattresses to halal food, US refugee groups race to aid arriving Afghans

US military veteran Luis Gonzales prepares mattresses to load onto a truck for Afghan refugees, in Houston, Texas, on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - When US Marine Corps veteran Luis Gonzales loads up donated supplies for newly arrived Afghan families in Houston, he can usually fit everything into his truck and make the delivery in a single trip.

But his routine changed a few weeks ago as the United States began its hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan. While the US government has not said how many Afghans have been evacuated to the country, refugee groups say thousands have arrived across the country, with more expected.

Mr Gonzales, 31, and other veterans are delivering mattresses, televisions, laptops and American flags to a growing number of families on short notice. They also provide gift certificates to a local market with halal food made according to Muslim dietary standards.

Refugee resettlement agencies and veterans groups are scrambling to help the arriving Afghans as tens of thousands flee their homeland in a massive airlift by the US and other Western nations.

One particular focus is evacuating Afghans who applied for the US Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme, which is available to those who assisted US forces during the two-decade war in the South Asian nation.

Advocates estimate that 80,000 Afghan SIVs and their family members will need to be evacuated, as well as other refugees. A White House official said on Tuesday (Aug 24) that the US had evacuated more than 82,000 people since Aug 14, a figure that includes Afghans, US citizens and foreign nationals.

This week, Mr Gonzales expects to visit seven families who recently entered the US through the SIV programme.

While SIV applicants are not required to participate in the US resettlement programme, most use those resources to adjust to American life.

Resettlement groups typically have at least two weeks to make preparations for arriving refugees, including renting and furnishing apartments and stocking fridges with groceries, but that timeline has been abbreviated to days or even hours amid the chaos of the US evacuation in Kabul.

Mr Gonzales was deployed to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in 2010. He now volunteers with the Houston-based veterans organisation Combined Arms in part because he felt an obligation to stand up for Afghans who aided the US military.

"After serving together, we're basically family now. We feel for them, we want to do more," he said.

Texas is one of the top destination states for SIV holders, second only to California, according to US Department of State data. Roughly 78,000 Afghans have been granted visas under the SIV programme since 2008.

Cuts to the US refugee programme under former president Donald Trump have made it harder to help the arriving Afghans, say some resettlement groups. These organisations were forced to cut staff and close offices as funding dried up. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, raised refugee levels this year, but some agencies are still recovering.

Many of the Afghans with SIVs go to Texas upon arrival in the US, but a higher proportion have been steered there in recent days as resettlement agencies in California and Virginia have struggled to quickly find housing for them, according to Mr Garrett Pearson, director at World Relief North Texas, which assists refugees.

Since the US evacuation started in mid-August, 35 Afghan families have arrived in the Fort Worth area through the group's programme, with another 20 set for this week, he said. Afghans are also heading to Austin, Dallas and other cities.

Ms Kerry Spare of YMCA International Services in Houston said her organisation has helped provide housing for about 40 Afghans in the past two weeks and expects more to come in September.

She said they are arriving with less than a day's notice, even when flights are arranged by the United Nations. "They're giving us no time to prepare."

Ms Spare said that YMCA had the resources in place to deal with the August arrivals, but would be tested if numbers increased.

Refugee Services of Texas, the state's largest resettlement agency, received 312 Afghan SIV holders and their families between Aug 1 and Aug 23. Sometimes, they have been given as little as five hours' notice, said Ms Ashley Faye, the group's development director.

"That doesn't give us time to get an apartment, so it's really just emergency housing right now," she said.

Her organisation is asking for hotel vouchers and people willing to let Afghans stay in empty Airbnb rental units, she said. It is also soliciting cash donations and posting Amazon wishlists for arriving families.

Groups in Texas say there has been a robust response.

"We have just seen an outcry of support," said Mr Pearson, noting that religious groups are stepping up.

While the effort to evacuate Afghan SIVs has strong bipartisan backing, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has opposed refugee resettlement in the past. Mr Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Cress Clippard, another veteran volunteer with Combined Arms, said bringing Afghans who aided the US government to Houston has not been controversial, noting that many Afghan interpreters and translators find resettlement easier because they speak English.

"Everyone likes the idea of people that fought for us getting a chance to become Americans," he said.

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