The End of America’s Longest War: Refugees from Afghanistan to Arrive in Durham

“Afghan Refugees Settlement I-12” by Hashoo Foundation USA – Houston, TX is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.

By the end of August, the final American soldiers had evacuated from Afghanistan marking the end of the longest war in U.S. history. 

The fulfillment of President Biden’s promise to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by August 31 has ended the American presence in the country after 20 years. Biden’s August 31 deadline created a short timeline for evacuation of all Americans in the country and their Afghan allies. 

As evacuations began, the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist political and military group in Afghanistan, mobilized. The Taliban gained control of land quicker than any top military expert or strategist predicted. Critics of Biden called the evacuation rushed and frantic, and argued that it left the government of Afghanistan defenseless.

In an August 18 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, President Biden adamantly defended his decision to evacuate despite the Taliban’s surprisingly rapid military response. 

“There is no good time to leave Afghanistan,” said Biden, “15 years ago would have been a problem, [and] 15 years from now. The basic choice is: am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan?”

Days after the last U.S. soldier left Afghanistan, the Taliban took over Kabul, the capital city, and solidified its largest control of land since the war began in 2001. 

 “The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing,” said Biden in his interview with Stephanopoulos, “I don’t know how that happens.”

The evacuation had significant implications for the thousands of Afghans who were evacuated with the Americans. These evacuees turn to cities across the US, like Durham, which have decided to accept them into their communities where these Afghans will start their new lives.

While the U.S. managed to evacuate over 120,000 Afghans through the Kabul airport, their departure from the country at the end of August left behind many of their Afghan allies who were promised passage out of the country.

Most Afghan citizens that aided the U.S. military effort served as translators and interpreters for the military, but others worked with news outlets, or with American Non-Governmental Organizations. They are all now eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). Other evacuees who don’t qualify for this federal program face a much more volatile legal status.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) around 55,000 evacuees have been relocated to the United States since August. Nearly all are currently spread across eight domestic military bases, where they are undergoing rigorous security screenings and medical procedures such as vaccinations for polio, chickenpox, and COVID-19. DHS reports that at least 40 percent of the Afghan evacuees will be eligible for an SIV. Most have already completed the necessary health and security requirements and are expected to be released to their designated communities across the U.S. in the coming weeks.

Evacuees Coming to North Carolina

North Carolina is one of 46 states receiving Afghan evacuees. According to the White House, NC will receive just under 1200 refugees, and some will begin their new lives in Durham.

Mayor Steve Schewel has overseen the resettlement of many refugees into the Durham community during his five years as mayor.  

“We have more than 2,000 refugees that are currently living in Durham,” said Schewell, whose second and final term ends in December.  “They are refugees from all over the world,” said Schewel, “Many of them, the great majority of them, are very successful here in our city. They work in our businesses, they pay taxes, their kids go to our schools.”

Schewel emphasized the success that refugees have found in Durham despite challenges like poverty and language barriers. 

“We are a community that has been very welcoming of refugees, and really we know how to support them, even though they often come with lots of trauma in their lives,” he said. “Many of them are mostly impoverished because they had to leave everything behind when they came to this country, so they are starting from scratch. But we have had many people, we have thousands of people, who have come to Durham as refugees, and are living here now and succeeding.”

Durham’s Refugee Resettlement Agencies 

Durham’s ability to accept these Afghan evacuees lies with two refugee resettlement agencies: Church World Services (CWS) and World Relief Durham. Both are national organizations with prominent offices in Durham that help provide food, clothing, housing options, and other essential services. They also provide a variety of classes and trainings including cultural orientation, civic engagement, and financial literacy, as well as assistance with enrollment in public education.

Kokou Nayo is a Community Organizer for Church World Services in Durham. Originally from the West African country of Togo, Nayo has been working with CWS since 2014 to build bridges between the Durham community and its refugee population.

“As an immigrant, I do understand how important it is to call a new place home,” Nayo said. “It’s not just anyone just out of the street that gets on the plane to come here,” Nayo continued. He clarified the fact that the SIV visa is not just given to people because “they [U.S.] want to get them out of there as quickly as possible,” but because the evacuees have been working with the U.S. for a certain amount of time.  He noted that “that process takes years for some people, takes more than a decade for some as well.”

The timeline and the extent to which the refugees rely on the CWS services is dependent on how quickly they are able to find housing and employment. CWS has partnered with local apartment complexes in the past, and relied on extra rooms donated for temporary living by people in the community. 

“[Finding housing] is hard, but it’s not impossible,” said Nayo, “We’ve done this in the past and we’re confident that we can find the housing for the population that is in need.” 

For the refugees, finding employment is a vital step toward their self- sufficiency in their new community. Many employers in the triangle, like the Latino Community Credit Union and Raleigh Painting Company, hire many refugees, but Nayo emphasized it is very case-by-case. 

Kokou Nayo is a Community Organizer for Church World Service. Image courtesy of Kokou Nayo.

Nayo also said that community involvement in the resettlement process is vital, especially when refugees come from war-torn countries. He spoke strongly about the importance of helping the refugees smoothly transition into life in America and in Durham. 

“We have a lot of support pouring from the community… we cannot do this without [their] support”

Nayo emphasized how much those refugees can add to triangle communities, and how valuable their perspectives are. 

“Refugees bring a lot to their communities and have a first hand story of what Syria looks like, or what Democratic Republic of the Congo looks like, or what Iraq looks like,” he said. “But here in Durham, for instance, we have many people who can bring that to you at school and also to the community.” 

Nayo also acknowledged the possibility that evacuees from Afghanistan could face racism or backlash from the Durham community:

“My fear is not people doing some harm to the refugee to come,” he said. “My fear is for people not to engage with the population that is coming. We know that people fear what they don’t know, and that is where I would like people to be open-minded, engage refugees, and there are many ways to do that.” 

Volunteering with CWS is one way to support resettlement, Nayo said. Durham residents can help set up apartments, or donate toys to incoming families. He also encourages local businesses to consider hiring refugees. 

“We know that anyone in our community will do anything to protect their families,” he said, “So [will] a refugee. For instance, they will decide to leave the place where they were born in order to save their kids. And once we start having these conversations in our community then we will see that there is a lot more that we have in common than we think we do.”

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