How Metro Detroit is preparing to welcome Afghan refugees

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of the largest evacuations in American history, with nearly 130,000 people airlifted out of the country. At least 50,000 of them were refugees headed to the U.S.

For many, managing to get on a plane in Kabul is only the beginning of their challenges. Once on U.S. soil, refugees face employment hurdles, accommodation searches, and the trauma that can come from culture shock. For families, there are even more complications.

Here in Detroit, however, organizations are working hard to make the transition a success. Samaritas is one of the largest partner organizations assisting refugees, and the nonprofit group has signed up to help more than a quarter of the 1,300 coming to Michigan to resettle.

“We are going to settle 350 Afghan refugees,” says Cheryl Kohs, Samaritas communications director. “That is the amount we signed up for, it doesn’t guarantee that we’ll get all 350, and we may be asked to take more,” she says.

Kohs says the majority will be settled in Southeast Michigan, most in the Dearborn and Warren-Sterling Heights areas.

“We obviously want to settle people where they will be comfortable, so as to assimilate them earlier,” Kohs says, referring to areas with previous success with refugee resettlement initiatives. 

Samaritas runs English as a Second Langauge (ESL) classes for refugees, at their Troy office.

Afghan refugees are not the only influx Samaritas is taking on, and the organization is trying to raise $430,000 by Dec. 31 to fund its programming.

“This year we’re trying to place another 800 to 1,000 refugees from other countries,” says Kohs. “COVID and its challenges make that number fluctuate.”

To expand the available resources, Samaritas works with local churches and mosques, the Jewish Community Fund, and Chaldean community groups. It also partners with ACCESS, a 50-year-old organization that helps immigrants adapt to life in Michigan. ACCESS has offices in Dearborn, Sterling Heights, Ferndale, and Detroit. 

One of the biggest issues Samaritas and its partners face is a housing shortage for the refugees, partially because of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, which led to fewer places available to rent, according to Kohs.

In the short term, Samaritas has found solutions. Churches and mosques offered to take people in and COVID-19’s hit on the hospitality industry has opened up hotel rooms that can be used. Dorms at local colleges may also be available.

These are, however, all temporary. Permanent homes need to be found that provide necessities, such as functioning kitchens.

Samaritas offers home placement services and is also working with its partners to find additional housing, as well as with refugees who have already gone through the program and can suggest potential housing.

The new refugees may also receive assistance from the $20 million Wayne County Emergency Rental Assistance Program. That program is available to landlords and their renters within Wayne County who have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, are experiencing housing instability, and whose household income is at or below 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI).

Samaritas offers sewing classes for refugees in Michigan. Refugees are given 180 days to become financially self-sufficient, so finding a job is high on the list of necessities. For many refugees, that work needs to be close to home, as they may not have access to a vehicle.

Samaritas provides job skill training and outreach and referral to help locate employment. Many of their partners have similar programs.

Refugees who have previously relocated are also an invaluable resource. Some help locate work near where they live, and pass the word along, or inquire about openings at their current place of business. Others have become entrepreneurs, started their own businesses, and are ready to hire incoming talent.

“We have some alumni who have opened some refugees to the economy that way,” says Kohs.

Many who have gone through the system also volunteer at places like Samaritas and are often tapped as mentors for the new arrivals. This is especially important, Kohs says, when dealing with culture shock, which is common among refugees who are not aware of U.S. customs or are learning the language.

“Grocery stores are just overwhelming,” says Kohs. 

For Afghan citizens who worked as translators for the U.S. military, English is already a second language, so Samaritas plans to connect with them as a resource to help other refugees adapt.

ACCESS and local mosques are valuable partners for language resources and by 2007 Metro Detroit had the largest Arab American population in the country, which has helped refugees from the Middle East adapt in the region. While most will settle in the Southeast region, a few will move to western Michigan. Samaritas has been in contact with organizations on the other side of the state, providing advice and information that could be helpful. 

The refugees also face potential concerns from those already living in the neighborhoods where they will be resettled, since they come from a country that has been at war for more than two decades. Connecting with local residents is important, says Kohs.

“I ask folks [in the neighborhood] about their personal history,” says Kohs. “It is opening up their hearts to people in need.”

Like all immigrants coming to the U.S., vaccinations are required, and there are strict qualifications for Afghan citizens to achieve refugee status. “The folks who come in have been vetted,” says Kohs, a process that includes the Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence agencies.

The 1,300 refugees coming to Michigan are more Afghan refugees than the state has resettled in the past 10 years. Helping them assimilate to a new life is not going to be easy, but Samaritas and its partners believe they can rise to the challenge and help them build a new life in the Metro Detroit community.