The Afghanistan exit was poor – our refugee resettlement plan is no better

As a country, it feels as if we are sitting in a car with a new driver who is distracted and does not know how to react to the brake lights and the swinging cars in front. We are weeks away from adding more chaos to the crisis we created as a result of our ill-planned departure from Afghanistan in July.

Right now, the federal government is coming up with a ill-conceived plan to resettle our Afghan allies with well-meaning but untrained and easily supervised volunteers who do not know what they are getting into.

And it should start in a few weeks.

We are nowhere near fulfilling our commitment to evacuate those who have supported American forces for the past 20 years. Thousands are still trapped in Afghanistan as the Taliban hunt them down and destroy their homes because of their service to our country. These Afghans are not refugees. They put their lives on the line for us and we owe them a gratitude and have a commitment to them.

So let’s not replace an ill-considered plan with another and further traumatize already traumatized people.

As CEO of the Seattle-based Jewish Family Service (JFS), one of the many organizations working to resettle our Afghan allies, I was recently in a conversation with the Department of Homeland Security, where I heard that the government plans to relocate the approximately 70,000 Afghans currently military bases into communities across the United States early next year. They very much want to do that with the help of volunteers.

They call it “private sponsorship” or “community sponsorship.” Private citizens who want to help can sponsor individuals or families; in other words, they can “become a welcome,” as the website says.

However, it is absurd for the Biden administration to believe that the answer is to invite well-meaning, but untrained, uncontrolled volunteers to take on the work of a resettlement agency. This marks a tectonic shift in the U.S. refugee resettlement strategy. It might be a good idea, but an idea without an implementation strategy is just a dream that can develop into a nightmare.

Unfortunately, this seems to have the same lack of consideration as the chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport this summer. Remember that the United States resettled over the last year less than 15,000 people – a staggeringly small number given the historical average for both Republican and Democratic administrations had been about 85,000 people a year.

Now with degraded infrastructure, does the government believe it can resettle 70,000 people in a matter of months with the help of unsupervised volunteers? Let’s remember, it was the Trump administration that deliberately disassembled the entire resettlement system and eradicated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of its institutional memory and experienced career officials.

There appear to be few meaningful systems to support this effort, modeled on the Canadian approach. Canada has, however four decades to refine its private sponsorship model.

There is a high probability that this will lead to chaos, as traumatized people will be resettled by people with a limited understanding of the many complexities of casework and resettlement. Even our teams, who have been doing this work for years, describe the intensity of the trauma they encounter as these families arrive with literally only the clothes on their backs.

Individuals and their families will show up on the doorstep of the resettlement agencies looking for support, and the “welcome” will quickly realize that they are in at all when trying to navigate the unique needs of all these people and the weight of government demands. Resettlement organizations are highly monitored. How will these volunteers be evaluated and monitored?

Organizations like JFS will be left to clean up. In addition, everyone will stumble across everyone else working through the state institutions until the infrastructure is implemented.

The desire of people to give their time, money and home voluntarily to those in need is what makes America amazing. It lives up to the ideals of the Statue of Liberty. But ideals are not a plan, and plans take time to develop and implement.

I suggest that the federal government work closely with the state coordinators for the resettlement of refugees. Talk to the people on earth who are currently doing the work. Ask questions, but do not impose a plan. Let us hire volunteer leaders in the resettlement agencies to help coordinate efforts to train, monitor, and match volunteers with families.

The administration could also use AmeriCorps and recruit the amount of other NGOs after high school to help coordinate efforts and ease the pressure on the resettlement agencies. Given the pandemic, there may also be members of the Peace Corps who were recalled to the United States who would enlist in this mission. Finally, let’s get the private sector, the companies that are masters of logistics, to help scale up these efforts.

Instead of another random approach, let’s seize this moment to revive the spirit of service and purpose throughout our country. Let’s gradually increase over the next year as we create a well-built infrastructure to make this a long-term success. And let us welcome our Afghan allies and their families into our community with the respect they deserve and the seriousness of purpose they displayed towards us in Afghanistan.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz, who heads the Jewish Family Service in Seattle, has been an outspoken national voice on the resettlement of refugees. Twitter: @JFSSeattle.


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