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Hundreds of Afghans resettled in the past 6 months

Heidi Dove, director of Village to Village, sorts through a bin of socks at the organization's warehouse.
Randi B. Hagi
/
Heidi Dove, director of Village to Village, sorts through a bin of socks at the organization's warehouse.

Hundreds of the Afghans who were evacuated from Kabul last year have resettled locally in the last six months. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi spoke with several non-governmental and nonprofit organizations about these efforts.

What do you do when 200 people show up in your town with little more than the clothes on their backs? For volunteers with the organization Village to Village, it sounds like –

[sounds of moving furniture]

VOLUNTEER: He's bringing the mattresses, so then we'll start to make up the bed with these sheets, and then …

I met up with them as they were setting up an apartment in Harrisonburg for a family of two parents with four children. Cassie Crockett was helping to put together a bedframe and mattress.

Cassie Crockett is a volunteer with the Christian charitable organization Village to Village.
Cassie Crockett is a volunteer with the Christian charitable organization Village to Village.

CASSIE CROCKETT: I just imagine, while we're doing the work, the family's first experience here, and especially when you have a place that has a washer and dryer, and imagine a Mom having a washer and dryer for the first time, or a kid sleeping in their own bed for the first time.

They provide everything from dressers to home decor for families who the federal government is resettling through the Harrisonburg office of Church World Service, or CWS.

Catherine Couch carries a bedframe into the children's room.
Randi B. Hagi
/
Catherine Couch carries a bedframe into the children's room.

HEIDI DOVE: When Church World Services [sic] gets a family, they will call us and they'll say, "we have a family of six. This is their address. This is the family dynamic.

Director Heidi Dove is their only staff member – everyone else is a volunteer.

DOVE: And we pull from our warehouse, and our warehouse is basically the community's donations. It's furniture, it's sheets, it's bedding, it's clothes and dishes, soap and detergent, anything that you use in your home. The only thing we don't do is electronics.

When they started doing this work two years ago, Dove said they'd have one to two "move-ins" per month. Lately, they've been doing two or three a week, as the Afghan evacuees get moved from hotels and conference centers into rental units.

Emily Bender, the development and communications coordinator for CWS, said about 200 refugees from Afghanistan came to Harrisonburg starting in mid-October. Normally, they'd only see 150 people in a whole year.

Emily Bender
courtesy photo
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Emily Bender

EMILY BENDER: Finding permanent housing has been challenging. We know that there is space for people, but we're looking for landlords who are willing to work with us to rent to our clients.

She said many of the adults have been so eager to find employment, they got jobs before they even got into an apartment. Finding housing has also been a challenge for the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville.

HARRIET KUHR: Two hundred people came to us in like a two-week period.

Harriet Kuhr is the executive director. All-told, their agency had 331 Afghan refugees come to them between October and December.

Harriet Kuhr
courtesy photo
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Harriet Kuhr

KUHR: That's more people than we have ever resettled in Charlottesville in an entire 12-month period … I mean, it was very, very challenging, and of course people are coming all at once, and they're coming into an extraordinarily tight housing market … so in October, we were putting everyone into hotels. We had people in as many hotel rooms as we could find in Charlottesville. We had people in hotels in Waynesboro. Some people who were even in Ruckersville. [chuckles]

When I spoke with Kuhr at the end of March, she said they'd found homes for the majority of people, although a few families were still in hotels.

KUHR: The ones, you know, we're still struggling with are the big families. It's difficult to find affordable rental housing – and we have families of 8, 9, 10, 11 … lots of kids. So that's a challenge.

She's been hiring employees to double their previous staff of 25 to meet the demand for services.

Another need some of the refugees have is English language instruction. Massanutten Technical Center is one of the schools providing those classes. Last fall, when a lot of the Harrisonburg-area folks were still staying at the conference center at Massanetta Springs –

Sandy Rinker in her office at Massanutten Technical Center.
Randi B. Hagi
/
Sandy Rinker in her office at Massanutten Technical Center.

SANDY RINKER: I took two teachers out there, and we had the classes twice a week for the individuals.

Sandy Rinker is the supervisor of adult programs.

RINKER: We stayed connected with them, and have transitioned them to come to our classes here at Massanutten Technical Center. And there has been a big outreach of people, of volunteers helping get them here. One of their biggest barriers is transportation. They want to be here, they want to learn, but once they're out on their own, they haven't gotten their driver's license and all that yet.

Rinker said there's a wide range within the group in terms of educational background and English proficiency. For many of the men who came here by themselves –

RINKER: Many of them were college-educated, so their academic levels were very high, but there were also those who'd never been to school at all … We had many that spoke very well, could communicate very well with us. They helped us. They were there to help us during registration … to help get the students oriented. But then there were some that didn't even know their birthday.

A basket of toys awaits a refugee family with four children in their new apartment.
Randi B. Hagi
/
A basket of toys awaits a refugee family with four children in their new apartment.

Harriet Kuhr said that another hardship the refugees face is psychological, because the trauma of fleeing their homes is so fresh.

KUHR: Most refugees have been displaced for many, many years before they actually get to the U.S. … You're not over what happened, but you've kind of had a little bit of time to work through it. But the Afghans, I mean they ran for their lives to that airport, not knowing if they would die on the way, got on a plane, and then like 15 hours later or whatever, they're in America.

If you or someone you know is a recent refugee from Afghanistan who has settled locally, and you are interested in sharing your story, we welcome you to get in touch with us at wmra.org/contact-us.

For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.

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