Pioneer Valley housing a challenge for Afghan evacuees

  • Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer game from a distance near the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on Sept. 30, in Ft. McCoy, Wis. The fort is one of eight military installations across the country that are temporarily housing the tens of thousands of Afghans who were forced to flee their homeland in August after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took control. Pool Photo via AP

  • Refugees board a bus at Dulles International Airport that will take them to a refugee processing center after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31 in Dulles, Virginia. Getty Images/TNS

  • Volunteer Sandra Hoeser plays frisbee with Afghan refugees at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on Sept. 30 in Ft. McCoy, Wis. The fort is one of eight military installations across the country that are temporarily housing the tens of thousands of Afghans who were forced to flee their homeland in August after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took control. Pool Photo via AP

Staff Writer
Published: 11/12/2021 5:00:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Six more refugees from Afghanistan are expected to arrive in the Pioneer Valley on Saturday, bringing to 50 the number of people being resettled by Catholic Charities since Oct. 1.

With an additional 40 to 50 Afghans still expected — anywhere from five to 12 a week through at least Thanksgiving — Catholic Charities will easily exceed the 60 refugees Executive Director Kathryn Buckley-Brawner initially anticipated resettling here. The agency is facing significant challenges in finding both temporary and permanent housing.

“Our most critical need is to move arrivals into permanent housing as quickly and reasonably as possible,” Buckley-Brawner said in an interview Friday.

“At the end of the day, success hinges on housing,” Buckley-Brawner said. “We need all the generosity and understanding and willingness to work with us for permanent housing.”

Catholic Charities, based in Springfield, is one of three agencies helping to resettle hundreds of the 60,000 or so refugees from Afghanistan, many who have been living on U.S. military bases, since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in August and the Taliban takeover.

The other agencies are Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts, also in Springfield, and Ascentria Care Alliance, with a local office in West Springfield. Ascentria has already placed 43 Afghans in West Springfield, with others to be resettled in the Concord, Manchester and Nashua areas of New Hampshire.

“We are fortunate that we have three really strong resettlement agencies and strong partners and, for the most part, generosity and compassion from residents of western Massachusetts,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Buckley-Brawner said the situation of increasing the numbers her agency could take in, also known as the “assurance pipeline,” was forced by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is moving to get evacuees into communities across the country as soon as possible. Resettlement agencies initially said they could only take in little more than half of the Afghans, but then agreed to find ways to almost double their capacity.

“Some of us had to rethink our positions and be able to offer a little bit more,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Keegan Pyle, who manages volunteers for Catholic Charities, said there will definitely be more Afghan evacuees in the area than originally projected.

“The number is going to go over the number we can take,” Pyle said.

Those who have arrived find themselves in a variety of situations. Five families, totaling about 20 people, are temporarily staying at a large home in Amherst, while more than a dozen single men are living in the retreat wing at the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Assisi site in Holyoke, where they have access to a commercial kitchen.

Two men have found a permanent home in Northampton, Buckley-Brawner said, and for the first time, the resettlement program will be using permanent housing in Greenfield, where three men are expected to live.

Buckley-Brawner said the goodwill of hotels with suites available is providing additional temporary housing. But the scarcity of housing has forced the agency to look beyond the usual sites in Northampton, Amherst and Hadley, so far identifying two locations in Chicopee.

“Only so much space has been offered for temporary housing,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Buckley-Brawner added that the region is short on affordable places, though Catholic Charities will work with property owners. They should understand that the Afghans have few resources, but come with an agency supporting them and limited financial support from the federal government.

Ideally, Buckley-Brawner said Afghan families would live near each other. “Case management and ability to not isolate people is really important,” she said.

Besides locating safe and affordable housing, possibly furnished with dressers and couches, as well as towels and bedsheets, Catholic Charities is making appeals to the community for financial contributions to support basic needs, and for volunteers who can assist their acclimation to living in the United States.

“If we can connect vacant affordable housing, that would be helpful,” Pyle said. “Financial contributions are always helpful. We are constantly accepting donations, furniture and household goods.”

Volunteers who can assist in the transition are also needed for the circles of care. They have been used in recent years to supplement the Catholic Charities caseworkers who sign people up for MassHealth and enroll children in schools.

“Circles of care are groups of at least six people who are matched with families for the first year they are here,” Pyle said. “A circle of care makes families feel much more welcomed.”

Circles of care participants may also help the individuals practice English, take them grocery shopping, and show them how to make health care appointments and use public transportation.

While there are 450 volunteers and 40 circles of care in place, 17 of which are matched with Afghan families, Pyle said there is a need for more.

The 5-year-old Welcome Home Northampton project has formed 14 new circles of care just in the past six weeks.

Buckley-Brawner said once Afghans are in housing and settled in, their concern will be those whose family members remain in the Taliban-controlled country. She observes that some families were separated while trying to escape at the airport in Kabul.

“The constant question for them is how to get them out,” Buckley-Brawner said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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