Editorials

We owe Afghan refugees far better than this

Afghan allies from war on terror struggle to find the American dream

The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet
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The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet

“Betrayal.”

There’s no better word for what’s happened to too many Afghan refugees, who were promised safe harbor in America but found danger and disappointment instead.

This shameful situation is vividly chronicled in “No Safe Place,” a 20-page special section published online and in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee that featured stories by Stephen Magagnini and photographs by Renée C. Byer.

They tell of Afghans who were resettled in Sacramento County under a special visa program for interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military and whose lives were at risk if they stayed in Afghanistan. Since October 2010, more than 2,000 people have arrived here, the most of any county in California.

Too many are struggling despite aid from the federal government, the help of local resettlement agencies and the kindness of strangers. Too many are working in menial jobs, nowhere close to their professional careers back home. Too many have ended up in decrepit apartment complexes in poor, crime-infested neighborhoods. In one particularly harrowing case, Faisal Razmal survived firefights and roadside bombs in Afghanistan, only to suffer a severe eye injury when he was shot with a flare gun by a teen in Arden Arcade.

There’s growing criticism of how the special visa refugees are being treated, for good reason. “We have an obligation to smooth their re-entry into society, to help them with accommodations that are not primitive, that are safe,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who authored the 2008 special visa law, told The Bee.

There’s no simple solution to make the American Dream come true for all the refugees. Still, it seems clear that some changes would make a positive difference.

Now, the U.S. State Department pays local resettlement agencies $2,025 per refugee – $1,125 in “welcome money” to help with rent, furniture and food, and $900 to manage their cases. Unfortunately, the case workers are often inexperienced, and these services last for 90 days at most.

If the initial financial grant were higher and if the assistance lasted longer, surely refugees and their families could make a better start in their new country. By donating to resettlement agencies and refugee advocacy groups, civic-minded philanthropists – or any Sacramento resident – could do wonders for our new neighbors.

Many refugees want more say into how their welcome money is spent, and their advocates say there isn’t a coordinated strategy to help them succeed. Resettlement agencies should work more closely with these volunteer representatives, especially since they speak the language. Better training for case workers would help, too.

One major issue that needs attention is trying to find better housing, though agencies say the options are limited given how much money is available. The situation is so bad that the State Department is now discouraging Afghan special visa holders from coming to Sacramento.

More difficult and complex is getting refugees into jobs more similar to their previous careers, though more intensive job placement services could help.

Because of demagogues like Donald Trump, the political climate is not exactly friendly to Muslim refugees these days. In an election year, it will take political courage – always in short supply in Congress – to increase aid.

But these refugees risked their lives to help Americans, then had to flee their home. America owes them better than what they’re receiving in return.

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