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Nonprofit Leader On The Work To Welcome And Resettle Afghan Refugees

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the Pentagon rushed to fly Americans out of Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal deadline last month, the U.S. military also evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom worked with American and allied troops during the conflict. So far, more than 20,000 Afghan refugees have arrived in the United States, where a number of organizations are helping them begin the resettlement process. To learn more, we called Kristyn Peck. She is the CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, a nonprofit that helps newly arrived refugees in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Kristyn Peck, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KRISTYN PECK: Thank you so much for having me on.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit about how your organization works with Afghans who left the country in the past few weeks?

PECK: Absolutely. As you mentioned, LSSNCA is a refugee resettlement organization. That's one of the core services we provide. And through that program, we've been welcoming our Afghan allies. We've served approximately 500 individuals since the end of July. By the end of September, we expect to serve upwards of a thousand people. For an organization that, in the past four years, served approximately 500 people a year, this has been a significant upscaling of all of our staffing and processes and systems. We're meeting every morning to rethink how we're doing things so that we can ensure we're providing the best services possible.

MARTIN: I just want to mention, just to sort of amplify what you just said, that under former president - the Trump administration slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country to just 15,000. President Biden has raised that cap to just over 62,000. And the former president also slashed the resources to pay for resettlement. So I'm just wondering, well, first, I just want to hear about what you normally do. And has that change in administration sort of changed how you do things or what you're able to do?

PECK: I think that context is really important. In the last year of the Obama administration, for example, LSSNCA served 1,600 refugees approximately. That was our record year. And then during the Trump presidency, due to the more restrictive policies, we were serving approximately 500 individuals a year. And so that was a significant downscaling of our program staff, our support staff, all of the infrastructure that we have to support, program and service. The services we provide, they include things like picking up allies or refugees at the airport or at Fort Lee or wherever they may be. They include providing temporary housing while we look to identify long-term housing. We provide housing assistance in terms of rent. We have people who've been walking into our doors who have been traveling for quite a while, and they're arriving with just the clothes they have on their backs. So we've been providing clothing and food and just other basic needs.

MARTIN: Can you share any anecdotes from people who have just arrived and just what some of their stories are? Without - I mean, I don't want to turn people into a postcard - right? - or, you know, a picture on the wall. But just - if you could, just give us a sense of what some of their stories have been?

PECK: Sure. So one of the concerns I have right now are the persons who arrive, who are being paroled in, and these individuals have also assisted U.S. missions, but perhaps their visa wasn't completed before the evacuation, so they're coming in on another status. And so these individuals are not eligible for the full range of services and benefits that our government offers to special immigrant visa holders. The other day, we had 12 individuals walk into our office who had parole status. They had identified a leader in the Afghan community who referred them to us, but they'd been living in a tent for several days. They arrived with only the clothes they had on their back. They'd been traveling for quite a while. Their immediate needs were showers and food. We're talking really basic needs here.

MARTIN: An NPR/Ipsos poll says that, actually, most Americans favor welcoming Afghans to the United States right now. I mean, you're hearing, you know, some criticism of the vetting process. You're hearing some complaints in the kind of conservative media circles, but - have you heard any pushback from people in the community who say this is happening too fast or we're not ready for this or anything of that sort?

PECK: No. You know, what we've seen is so inspiring. We've had 5,300 people sign up to be volunteers. That's beyond a record for us. We typically work with about 350 volunteers a year. We have more people who want to volunteer than we have things for volunteers to do at this point. But we're so grateful for all these people who want to step in and help. I'll tell you I, you know, out of all the positive response that I've seen, I've seen two emails that were not supportive of these efforts. But the positive response far outweighs those, so I think this is something that's received support across all types of boundaries.

MARTIN: Well, I'd love to stay in touch with you as these things, you know, progress. Thanks so much for sharing all of this with us. And I know that you're incredibly busy right now, and I just appreciate your taking the time to talk with us, and I do hope we'll stay connected. I'd love to hear more about how things are progressing. That was Kristyn Peck, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area. That includes the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Kristyn, thank you so much for talking to us.

PECK: Thank you so much for having us on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "SAILING THE SOLAR FLARES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.