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Faith-based organization opens Northern Virginia office to aid Afghan refugees

An estimated 700 evacuees are expected to be resettled in coming months

Pastor Sarah Scherschligt speaks at an event for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service on Dec. 16 at Peace Lutheran Church in Fairfax County. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A faith-based organization on Thursday announced the opening of a resettlement office in Northern Virginia that will assist hundreds of Afghan evacuees in finding new homes and starting new lives in the region.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service officials said they expect the new office to resettle approximately 700 Afghans who have been living on military bases since fleeing Afghanistan after the rapid collapse of its U.S.-backed government this summer.

The resettlement office, in the annex of Peace Lutheran Church in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, is one of 12 new sites in a network of 51 resettlement offices the nonprofit agency operates across the country, spokesman Timothy Young said. He said two sites in Maryland have resettled 250 refugees and expect to welcome approximately 500 more.

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Muzhgan Azizy, who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul before leaving in July with her husband and son, said she knows firsthand the challenges Afghan refugees face as they try to adapt to a new language and culture.

Luckier than many, Azizy and her family were immediately placed in an apartment in Falls Church rather than military lodgings. But the pantry was bare, and she had no way of buying anything to eat, because her funds and credit card from Afghanistan had been frozen. A cousin from Boston offered to order takeout.

“She was like, ‘What do you want to eat?’” recalled Azizy, 36. “I said, ‘Anything!’”

Azizy is already working as senior program officer for Afghan placement and assistance in the new office. She said she has encountered one young woman who made it out on the chaotic airlift from Kabul airport with little more than a bottle of water.

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“There are still so many who worked for the U.S. who cannot get out,” Azizy said.

Many new arrivals are understandably anxious as they go about trying to learn English and await placement in permanent housing for themselves and their families, which can sometimes be large, she said. Some are depressed knowing that their educations or licenses in, say, civil engineering, do not count for much here yet. Others, remembering the risks they exposed themselves to by agreeing to assist the United States against the Taliban, express frustration that others like them have been left behind.

“People went through so much,” Azizy said.

About 30 people attended the ribbon-cutting at the church, including an aide from the office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).

Pastor Sarah S. Scherschligt said that when she first heard the Lutheran organization was in need of office space for a resettlement office, she offered use of the church’s annex even before receiving a formal go-ahead.

“I knew the heart of this congregation was to say yes and figure out the details later,” Scherschligt told those gathered. She said it was incumbent on Christian communities to open their arms to refugees and in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

“We want to remember we, too, are sojourners,” she said.

In an interview, Scherschligt said Peace Church has demonstrated a long-standing commitment of helping refugees since the Vietnam War. But she also acknowledged that she has heard from those who expressed fear and alarm about taking in Afghan refugees.

“What I say is, ‘I’m not worried,’” Scherschligt said.

An estimated 30,000 Afghan refugees remain on military bases. The Lutheran agency, which operates resettlement offices in 27 states, expects to resettle more than 2,000 Afghan refugees in the Washington region, Young said.