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More Afghans than expected to arrive in Buffalo

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Pressed by the federal government to accept more Afghan evacuees, Buffalo's four immigrant and resettlement agencies say they will receive more than they originally agreed to.

The evacuees began arriving in late November with more on the way in the coming weeks and months.

The request from the federal government comes as the Afghan newcomers have become eligible for services and benefits that those who enter the U.S. as refugees receive.   

The agencies have increased capacity to serve more Afghans because of the evacuees' access to those benefits, officials from the agencies say.

"Now that there’s resources available, we’ve increased the numbers," said Molly S. Carr, CEO of Jewish Family Services, one of Buffalo's resettlement agencies.

Nearly 50,000 evacuees have received assistance from resettlement agencies across the country, including 1,636 who have resettled in New York State as of Dec. 7.

A total of 456 Afghan evacuees have arrived or are scheduled to arrive at Buffalo's resettlement agencies, according to Rep. Brian Higgins' office.

The figure is up from 350, estimated before the Afghans became eligible for the public services and benefits last September.

Catholic Charities of Buffalo will ultimately receive 76 evacuees; International Institute of Buffalo, 109; Journey's End Refugee Services, 134; and Jewish Family Services, 137.

Tens of thousands of Afghans arrived in the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and the U.S. military ended its 20-year campaign in the war-torn country. The U.S. airlifted Afghan civilians, particularly interpreters and U.S. embassy employees among others, whose work for the U.S. jeopardized their safety. 

Because the Afghans fled their country so quickly, they did not immediately qualify for asylum, refugee status or special immigrant visas, which follow a lengthy application process. That meant they were initially not eligible for the kind of public benefits and services that refugees normally get. 

But that changed when Congress passed a spending bill last September making the Afghans eligible for federal mainstream benefits, such as cash assistance through the Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs, health insurance through Medicaid and food assistance through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Afghans, however, do not have refugee status or a clear path to permanent residency or citizenship, said Karen Andolina Scott, an immigration lawyer who serves as executive director of Journey's End Refugee Services.

The federal government has accepted more than 76,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome, including thousands of Afghans who are at overseas transit locations for processing to come to the United States, said a State Department spokesperson.

The Afghans, designated as "humanitarian parolees" by the federal government, stay at U.S. military bases – where they are temporarily housed – until they are resettled in communities across the country.

Office of New Americans plays role

Buffalo's Office of New Americans, created in 2015 to serve the city’s growing refugee and immigrant communities and work with resettlement agencies, has been without a director since last month, when Jessica M. Lazarin left the position to join a law firm. Mayor Byron W. Brown said he expects to announce a new director in the coming weeks.

"Our new American community continues to grow, and the need to assist that community in accessing city services and other services is as vital as ever," he said.

The office is not a major part of the resettlement agencies' work, but plays a part, agency leaders say.

“If you’re looking at refugee resettlement and refugee integration, it’s really critical that our social institutions like our local government have connection points and access for those populations to feel comfortable at utilizing those social institutions,” Carr said. “And I really think the Office of New Americans in the city has an important role to play there.”

The office helps new residents settle here and acts as liaison to immigrant groups.  

Since Lazarin left, the office has had only one other employee working.

"For me, refugee resettlement is something that is vital," said Scott of Journey's End Refugee Services. "It’s something that’s really important to Buffalo and to Western New York, and I think that having an Office of New Americans as part of city government is certainly important if the city does value its refugee population." 

The International Institute of Buffalo has worked with the office to identify needs and address services. 

“We have since its inception,” said Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, the institute's interim executive director. "It’s a great office to have here because it’s an office that we can call … when we have questions, or we have needs.” 

"It would be great for the office to have another strong leader in it," she added.

Catholic Charities regularly meets with the office, said Maria Eliza "Apple" Domingo, director of the organization's Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program.

"We have this ongoing partnership where every quarter we meet, and we talk about the needs of everybody, including the needs of the ONA if they have any. We’ve been doing this for a while... so that they are advised of our capacity, who we're bringing in, what the problems are, and we anticipate the needs,” Domingo said. "We talk about the needs and different ways we can assist."

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"It's also traumatic to have to start your life all over again, and that's basically what happens to all of our refugees. We're doing our best to make the situation less traumatic for them, but it's a huge challenge," said Kathy Spillman, director of community outreach for Journey's End.

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