(NewsNation) — The evacuation in the final weeks before the Taliban’s take-over of Afghanistan drew criticism for being chaotic and ill-prepared, but the following resettlement efforts revealed accomplishments advocates say set a benchmark for what’s possible moving forward.
Monday marks one year since the Afghanistan capital Kabul fell following the U.S. withdrawal of troops.
Despite the initial turmoil, those working with refugees tell NewsNation the resettlement of those evacuated took on an unprecedented scale, including private citizens, nonprofits, lawmakers and government agencies that sliced through red tape to welcome 75,000 evacuees that the system was otherwise not prepared to resettle.
Private and military planes flew thousands out, bringing them to military bases and other safe havens to await settlement in the U.S.
“The fact that we were able to welcome so many Afghans into the country in such a short period of time is a testament to really heroic effort,” said Danilo Zak, an immigration policy expert with the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum.
One year ago, Mariam Kakar with Women for Afghan Women worked amid a sea of giant white tents housing hundreds of people following the fall of Kabul. Children ran through the makeshift alleyways barefoot, and parents hung sheets to create privacy around family bunk beds.
“I was (completely) in awe, just the amazing beauty within these people — the fact that they had gone through so much, but they were still so resilient,” Kakar said, an Afghan American who spent seven months volunteering at Quantico, Virginia’s refugee encampment for Afghan evacuees.
In August 2021, resettlement agencies decimated by cuts under the Trump administration were suddenly preparing to welcome thousands of people, all at once, with little notice.
“Every day there were multiple flights that we had to meet at the airport, apartments that we had to arrange,” said Martin Cominsky, CEO of the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. “It was like we’re normally working with a garden hose. We’re now working with a fire department hose with water gushing.”
This left an opening for the federal government to test the community sponsorship model, where a group of private citizens commit to giving refugee families financial, emotional and practical support as they build new lives in a new country. Sponsorship has been gaining popularity among local agencies in recent years.
The Community Sponsorship Hub resettled 600 people outside of the traditional agency model, said Sarah Krause, executive director and co-founder. The Hub collaborated with the State Department on the Sponsor Circle Program and found many resettled under the program had secure jobs and housing — and overall reported high community support.
While it’s still too soon to measure the long-term impacts of the program, Canada has had a similar program for decades. Research shows their sponsorship approach builds stronger bonds in a refugees’ new neighborhood — and the surrounding community becomes more open-minded.
“You might find that one of the sponsor circle members is a teacher at the local school and can more quickly navigate the school enrollment process, or someone else has a friend who is a landlord who has housing that he’s willing to offer,” Krause said.
Sponsor groups had to have a minimum of five members. They went through background checks, had to raise money for the individual or family they were sponsoring and go through training.
Meanwhile, Afghans waiting at safe havens were given the decision to go with a sponsor circle or wait for an opening with a traditional agency — which could take weeks or months.
Sponsor Circles allowed Afghans more choice where they wanted to go, Krause said, because family members or friends already in the U.S. could volunteer as a sponsor — even if the local agency was overwhelmed.
The State Department has announced a private sponsorship pilot in 2022, saying over time it will improve our country’s ability to resettle refugees.
“(The) U.S. government was really open to innovation in a way that maybe they have been more hesitant to be in the past, because it was an emergency response,” Krause said.
A year later, Kakar says the Afghan refugees she works with in Alexandria, Virginia, have settled into jobs and routines.
Yet there’s still a sense of uncertainty, as a majority of Afghan evacuees are still only on two-year visas. The Afghan Adjustment Act is currently before Congress and, if passed, would provide these parolees a path to permanent residency in the U.S.
However, it would only apply to those living in the U.S. Thousands of refugees still reside in Pakistan and Iran, waiting for wealthy counties to approve their refugee status. Many are women and children, according to Truthout.
Kakar hopes the lessons in massive collaboration between agencies, government officials and everyday people will be remembered.
“Everyone needed each other,” she said. “Not one or two agencies or the government by itself could have done this successfully.”