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Refugee organizations say they’re seeing a surge of donations for Afghans

Evacuees from Afghanistan walk to a bus at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., on Sept. 6. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Leaders of several refugee resettlement organizations say money and resources have been flooding in from across the country to assist Afghan evacuees who helped American forces during the two-decade war.

The flow of donations has been a welcome surprise for these organizations. The number of refugees admitted to the country was slashed under President Donald Trump by more than 80 percent. Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service had closed more than a third of its offices and laid off or furloughed workers, moves it attributed to Trump’s policies and the pandemic.

But LIRS president and CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah estimated the organization has raised $1.8 million over the past month; she said it raised $25,000 in August 2020. The organization’s office space is covered “wall to wall” with diapers, kitchenware and school supplies, she said. One pastor recently drove four hours from Roanoke to the LIRS office to drop off a van-load of supplies.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Vignarajah said. “The outpouring of support we’ve seen … feels unprecedented and awe-inspiring. It feels like a unique moment.”

In the coming weeks and months, refugee resettlement agencies are expected to help tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees start new lives in the United States. Most have been sent to military installations to get medical checks and connect with resettlement organizations before moving to permanent homes in American communities.

In a typical week, LIRS would see maybe a dozen people sign up to volunteer. In the past three weeks, 45,000 people signed up. And LIRS has partnerships lined up with Airbnb for housing, Uber for transportation and Walmart for gift cards.

Americans have been divided in recent years over whether the country should accept refugees, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. In a 2018 Pew survey, about 51 percent of Americans said the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees, and 43 percent said it does not. For much of the 20th century, polls have generally shown disapproval of admitting large numbers of foreigners fleeing war and oppression.

Politically, although some conservatives have expressed alarm over admitting Afghan evacuees, describing them as an economic, cultural or national security threats, several Republican governors have agreed to accept them in their states.

Recent polls also suggest that the vast majority of Americans appear to support relocating Afghan evacuees here. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 68 percent strongly or somewhat favored the United States’ accepting Afghan refugees after they have passed security screenings.

They made it out of Afghanistan. But their path ahead is uncertain.

Anna Salzberg, 35, who lives in D.C., was part of a recent fundraising drive for Afghan evacuees run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which typically raises money for the Jewish community. That effort netted $650,000, which the organization donated to Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, which has been helping to resettle Afghans. Leaders at Lutheran Social Services have said the organization has a $1.8 million funding gap as a result of resettling 500 refugees over the past month.

Salzberg said she began donating annually to refugee-related organizations about four years ago after Trump issued an executive order banning U.S. entry by citizens of some majority-Muslim countries. She said she feels drawn to the issue because she is a descendant of Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the early 1900s.

“As an American, you can’t not feel a responsibility across the aisle, whether or not it was a war you supported,” she said.

Though many call them “refugees,” Afghan evacuees are not entering through the formal refugee program. The federal government will provide them with 90 days of assistance, including $2,275 per person, which is split between the individuals and the resettlement agencies.

Refugee resettlement agencies often help transport individuals and families from airports, arrange housing and help them find employment. In 2020, the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions to a historically low maximum of 15,000, and this year, President Biden said he would raise the ceiling to 62,500. Because of the lower cap set by the Trump administration, organizations received less funding, and many were forced to lay off employees.

World Relief, an evangelical organization, has raised around $1.2 million to resettle Afghans and has recorded 15 times as many new donors in the past 30 days as in the same period last year, according to Jenn Foy, World Relief’s vice president for U.S. programs. One of Foy’s colleagues, in Sacramento, has been receiving donations at her home, where she’s worked during the pandemic, and says that her front door has been blocked by boxes of donated goods.

“These people stood side by side and served,” she said. “People genuinely want to help take care of people who took care of us.”

World Relief is aiming to rebuild some of what it lost under the Trump administration, when it closed five offices. In 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year in office, the organization resettled 9,769 people. During Trump’s final year in office, 2020, it resettled 2,179.

Foy said that in recent weeks, support has been pouring in from churches, veterans groups and members of the military. She said she’s seen unusual bipartisan support because people see the issue from several angles: some feel motivated to care for U.S. allies, and others are expressing support for women’s rights.

“This is the most bipartisan support of a refugee or immigrant issue since the start of the Syrian crisis, when the little boy washed ashore in Greece,” said Foy, referring to Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose image made global headlines when he drowned in 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. “It’s that kind of moment.”

Syed Hassan, spokesman for Islamic Relief USA, said his organization has raised more than $1 million in recent weeks, a level of support he said he had not seen in his four years there. In the coming weeks, the group will pack 10,000 food boxes and provide grants for essentials such as rent and food.

“I’m certainly heartened by the level of altruism and generosity from different sides of the political spectrum,” Hassan said. “It’s refreshing, and we hope that spirit continues.”

Afghan refugee Massiullah Ahmadzai, 17, on living in America

The generosity of some donors has gone beyond gifts of money, said Stacey Clack, director of community sponsorship and engagement at Church World Service. Clack said 256 landlords have offered property rentals. A co-op farm has offered free vegetable deliveries for newly arrived Afghan families until May 2022. And a group of friends who together purchased a vacant convent with 17 rooms offered it to provide housing.

Zach Lambert, the pastor of a nondenominational church in Austin, said his church and a local mosque are partnering to create about 300 boxes of supplies for Afghans coming to their city. This past Sunday, Lambert said, his congregation donated money for at least 150 boxes.

“It has been unifying,” he said. “There’s some politicization of what’s happening in Afghanistan, but we’re all looking at it and saying, ‘I don’t care who’s fault it is; let’s do something.’ ”