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Local Aid Groups Help Nearly 9,000 Afghans Housed at New Jersey Military Base

The capacity at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is expected to expand in order to house at least 10,000 individuals

Before the fall of Kabul, many refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. already knew what could be coming. They began reaching out to landlords to find affordable housing for families. They collected donations to help finance the long process of Afghans starting over in a new country. They connected with counseling centers who could be a steady source of support for evacuees in this transition period.

Now, hundreds of Afghan evacuees have been at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in southern New Jersey for more than two weeks while they are officially processed before resettling. The arrival of thousands of Afghans comes on the heels of more than 100 U.S. refugee resettlement offices closing during the Trump administration, due to stringent resettlement policies. About one-third of all resettlement agencies were closed entirely or deactivated during Trump’s time in office, said Kelly Agnew-Barajas, the director of Refugee Resettlement at Catholic Charities in New York.

And now, neighboring communities to the New Jersey base are scrambling to figure out the best way to help. But how many Afghan evacuees might be resettled and where they will resettle remains unclear, organizers say.

“Refugees are coming in in hundreds and thousands, but we don’t know the exact number,” Sikandar Khan, the director of the Global Emergency Response and Assistance (GERA), said at a recent online webinar. He and others are unsure of the exact number of Afghans at the base, though U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who toured the base last week, said there were nearly 9,000 evacuees housed there.

It’s also unknown how long individuals will be staying at the base for, organizers said. Some Afghan evacuees might leave the base for resettlement within the next two months, and others might stay there for up to a year, according to information they are obtaining from the base, Khan said. “We got mixed answers,” Khan said. “It really depends on the individual case.” 

Some of the weight of helping the Afghans has fallen on community groups who have stepped up to assist with refugee issues. “I would say that it’s safe to say that we saw an increased burden — as did all those who are involved in the refugee resettlement process,” said Sally El-Sadek, the Executive Director of One World One Love, a New Jersey-based and volunteer-run community organization supporting resettlement agencies with the process.

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Refugee resettlement agencies, like Church World Service and the International Rescue Committee, receive a one-time payment through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, per each refugee, to help with resettlement expenses during an individual’s first three months in the United States. Resettlement agencies, in coordination with local groups help find housing, employment opportunities, enroll children in school, and connect refugees with counseling services and language assistance, among other tasks.

One of the main priorities, local organizations said, is securing safe housing for new arrivals. Prior to the current situation, the International Rescue Committee was primarily responsible for finding refugee housing, said El-Sadek. Now, El-Sadek’s organization has mobilized their volunteer network to help identify more housing because of an increased need — including referring landlords who may be willing to reduce the housing price for Afghan individuals resettling. 

At Welcome Home Jersey City, another local organization assisting with resettlement efforts, housing has also been a pressing priority. In this situation, the International Rescue Committee has sometimes only received about a 24 hours notice before an Afghan family travels to New Jersey, said Alain Mentha, the executive director of Welcome Home. 

So, Mentha and his group have been preemptively finding landlords and apartments on their own which can be ready as soon as a family or individual arrives, and they’ve even set up sizable transitional housing in the rectory of a church, he said. “We’re probably going to sign short term leases,” he said, “just so we can kind of hold them until folks start coming. It’s a very difficult thing to get housing for refugees because they effectively arrive without an identity.”

One World One Love, El-Sadek’s group, has helped resettle about 60 individuals from various countries since the beginning of 2021 — but nearly half have arrived in the last few weeks of August, El-Sadek said. She, like other organizers, is anticipating that there will be a jump in the number of Afghan families arriving in the area. 

Afghan evacuees first arrived on August 25, with almost 1,200 Afghans housed at the military base as of August 27, United States Air Force General Glen D. Vanherck said at a press briefing at the end of August. On September 3, the latest counts of the number of Afghan evacuees at the base stood at 3,700, according to the Associated Press. On September 10, as he visited the base, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez said that there were almost 9,000 evacuees at Fort Dix.

The capacity at the base is expected to expand in order to house at least 10,000 individuals, Gen. Vanherck has said.

The base previously said in a press release that it could serve as a temporary shelter for up to 9,500 individuals from Afghanistan with Special Immigrant Visas, which are given to Afghans who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of State says.

And more evacuees are on their way. About 40,000 Afghan evacuees have been admitted to the United States as of September 3, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a press briefing. A total of more than 50,000 evacuees are expected to enter the United States, he added.

More than 8,500 Afghan evacuees have arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport since September 6, many of whom were transported to Fort Dix, Pennsylvania officials said.

For many Afghans in New Jersey, the hope is that those who want to will be able to resettle in surrounding communities. Manzur Karim, an Afghan man who left Afghanistan about thirty years ago and now lives in Parsippany, New Jersey, holds out hope that his own loved ones will be able to resettle near him soon. 

One of his best friends, he said, fled Afghanistan when Kabul fell and is currently at the New Jersey military base with no sure idea of when he will be able to leave. Some of his wife’s family members worked with the Americans, but were not able to make it out of Kabul on time. They now live in hiding with constant dread of potential retaliation from the Taliban, Karim said.

“The past couple of weeks, it’s like a hole in my heart. You can feel the pain, but you can’t do anything about it,” he said. 

“We have a good community here, we have people who want to help,” Karim said, referring to the support for Afghan evacuees. “We want to have people in New Jersey. It helps us with our community as well, and we can help them to get comfortable and get around. Because it’s not easy.”

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