OLYMPIA — Washington is ready to embrace Afghan refugees, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
Inslee welcomed arriving Afghans during an event at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s Afghan Welcome Center on Friday. He was joined by leaders from the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, Airbnb, the Seattle Foundation and Washington’s refugee resettlement agencies.
“This is an expression of who we are,” he said, standing in front of a sign that said, “We welcome our Afghan Neighbors. We embrace people of diverse backgrounds.”
Washington is expecting 1,700 Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover in their country. About 340 people already have arrived; others will be here in the coming weeks.
Spokane is expecting 300 Afghan refugees, said Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief. A few dozen have arrived in the last month, but the numbers likely will increase sharply in the next couple of weeks, he said.
Their arrival will require assistance from the federal government, state agencies, private funders and local communities, Inslee said.
Local organizations already have stepped up to help, Inslee said. They’ve found shelter, processed visa applications and provided additional funding. Specifically, he mentioned Microsoft, which pledged $1 million to the effort; Alaska Airlines, which donated domestic flights to bring people to Washington; and the Seattle Foundation, which is building the initiative for private donors.
The Seattle Foundation, which runs the state’s All in Washington COVID-19 relief effort, will accept donations and allows contributors to donate goods or money directly to organizations working to resettle.
At SeaTac, Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, said the state’s resettlement systems will be tested in “unprecedented ways” as Afghans begin to arrive very quickly.
“They simply cannot do the work by themselves,” she said.
In Spokane, Finney said the biggest need is housing and funding for housing, especially with the city’s current housing crisis.
“It really requires a government effort to address that on a large scale,” Finney said.
Inslee said Friday that there is much more to do — specifically, locate long-term housing for families who are arriving, though he did not mention any government funds to do so.
Nationally, Airbnb has offered temporary housing to Afghan refugees. Ayisha Irfan, public policy manager at Airbnb, said Friday that the company has helped house 2,000 refugees in the last month, including 130 people in Washington.
Finney told The Spokesman-Review last month that World Relief Spokane would have access to some of the Airbnb credit. He added that mental health funding and resources will be needed at a large scale. Many refugees who arrive in the U.S. had been living in camps for months before arriving here, he said.
The Afghans who are coming fled the Taliban and their home country only a few weeks ago.
Nicky Smith, at the International Rescue Committee, said those who are coming likely are arriving with only the clothes on their back, after experiencing “enormous trauma.” The humanitarian aid and relief organization works with refugees once they arrive to greet them at the airport, place them in housing, and get them a job, Social Security cards and health checks. The immediate process takes about 90 days, Smith said, but resettlement takes a lot longer than that.
“That’s why we can’t do this without the community,” she said.
The most important piece in the resettlement process is creating a welcoming environment for those who will be arriving, Afzali said Friday.
The community in Spokane helped in some “amazing ways,” Finney said. The mayor, City Council, senators and other politicians have worked directly with the Spokane office of World Relief, he said, but local faith communities and residents also have helped.
Refugees often arrive with only one or two suitcases for their family, Finney said, but so many people in Spokane already have donated furniture and household items that the office’s warehouse is filled.
“So many faith communities and individuals have stepped up,” he said.