America’s major religions and denominations, often divided on other big issues, have united behind the effort to help receive an influx of refugees from Afghanistan following the end of the United States’ longest war and one of the largest airlifts in history.
Among those gearing up to help are Jewish refugee resettlement agencies and Islamic groups; conservative and liberal Protestant churches; and prominent Catholic relief organizations, providing everything from food and clothes to legal assistance and housing.
“It’s incredible. It’s an interfaith effort that involved Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, Jews, Episcopalians … Hindus … as well as nonfaith communities who just believe that maybe it’s not a matter of faith, but it’s just a matter of who we are as a nation,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The U.S. and its coalition partners have evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan since the airlift began Aug. 14, including more than 5,400 American citizens and many Afghans who helped the U.S. during the 20-year war.
The effort by faith groups to help resettle them follows a long history of religious involvement in refugee policy, said Stephanie Nawyn, a sociologist at Michigan State University who focuses on refugee issues.
Decades before the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program was created in 1980, faith organizations advocated for the resettlement of Jewish refugees during World War II. Religious groups also helped receive people who fled wars in Vietnam, the Balkans and elsewhere.
Besides helping distribute government resources, the groups mobilize private assets such as donations and volunteers and work with other private entities to provide supplies and housing, Nawyn said.
U.S. resettlement agencies were gutted under former President Donald Trump, who slashed refugee admissions yearly until they reached a record low. Now agencies are scrambling to expand capacity so they can handle the influx from Afghanistan.
“It’s a historic effort, and there are and have been challenges — especially after rebounding from four years of what was a war on immigration, which decimated the refugee resettlement infrastructure,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.
“Some of our local offices might have resettled 100 families throughout the entirety of last year, and they may now be looking at 100 families in the next few weeks,” she said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities and other agencies have been welcoming Afghan families at U.S. military bases where they’re being housed temporarily.
A major challenge is finding affordable housing in areas where Afghans have typically resettled, including California and the Washington, D.C., region.
“I’m very concerned about children, getting them into schools,” said Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services program.
World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization, has helped resettle about 360 Afghans in the past month and is expecting many more, said Matthew Soerens, the group’s U.S. director of church mobilization.
“These are individuals in many cases who have put their lives at risk and their families’ lives at risk for the people of the United States of America,” he said. “Now that they’re facing the risk of retribution and retaliation from the Taliban … I think most Americans of all religious traditions see it as a moral imperative for us to keep our promise.”
Among the evacuees are Afghans who obtained special immigrant visas after working with the U.S. or NATO as interpreters or in some other capacity; people who have applied for the visas but not yet received them; and those who might have been particularly in danger under the Taliban.
But thousands of others who also qualified for visas have been left behind because of a backlog of applications, and faith-based groups have called on President Joe Biden’s administration to get them safely to the U.S.
“Some of the cases we are involved with have gotten out, but many have not,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Jewish refugee agency HIAS, one of nine groups that contract with the State Department on resettlement.
“We have a girl who was literally shot by the Taliban and is now severely disabled who can’t get out,” he said. “We are aware of many, many others who are trapped — and the U.S. has left them behind.”