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Western Pa. groups prep for fleeing Afghans seeking to resettle in Pittsburgh

It remains unclear how many Afghans will seek refuge in the Pittsburgh region, which is among 20 U.S. metropolitan areas available for resettlement.

Hundreds of people ran alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moved down a runway of the international airport in Kabul on Monday.
Hundreds of people ran alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moved down a runway of the international airport in Kabul on Monday.Read moreShekib Rahmani / AP

At least one Afghan family granted a special U.S. visa to flee their Taliban-toppled homeland is expected to resettle in Western Pennsylvania in the coming weeks.

“We are ready for their arrival,” said Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of refugee and immigrant services for the Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), a Squirrel Hill-based organization affiliated with the global refugee aid nonprofit HIAS. “Our goal is to help them to successfully navigate this difficult process and get settled as easily as possible.”

In addition to the family soon headed to Pittsburgh, another family recently arrived from Kabul on their own via a tourist visa and also will be aided by JFCS staff.

It remains unclear how many total Afghans will seek refuge in the Pittsburgh region, which is among 20 U.S. metropolitan areas available for resettlement.

“We have been just told to sit tight,” said Jordan Golin, CEO of JFCS. It is coordinating resettlement efforts alongside the Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach, with help from about a dozen nonprofit, government and housing groups.

Fleeing ‘grave danger’ amid Taliban takeover

Roughly 20,000 to 22,000 Afghan residents are at some stage of the application process for special immigrant visas. SIVs are available to translators and others who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. military or government for more than two years.

“As our armed forces return home, Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. Armed Forces as interpreters or in other roles are to be evacuated to the United States,” Golin said. “The evacuation is critical as political instability puts these American heroes and their families in grave danger from the political forces in Afghanistan.”

» READ MORE: In a Kabul under Taliban control, Philly-area Quakers try to get one man out to safety

Taliban spokespersons have made initial assertions that they will not seek “revenge” or retribution on government officials and other civilians, but human rights groups and experts warn that such civilians have a right to be afraid.

The Pentagon is scrambling to get special immigrant visa recipients and applicants safely out of Afghanistan as the Aug. 31 deadline of withdrawing U.S. combat troops approaches. The Army is eyeing temporary sites to house large numbers of special visa applicants and other displaced Afghans at Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort McCoy, Wis.; and Fort Lee, Va.

Nearly 2,000 of those with special visas have arrived in the U.S. in the past two weeks, including 700 over the weekend as Kabul fell to the Taliban and thousands swarmed Afghanistan planes in desperate attempts to flee, the Pentagon reports.

Most had been waiting to resettle here for one to two or more years, stymied by the lengthy approval process. The Defense Department has been called to assist the State Department with expediting approvals.

Helping Afghan refugees build new lives

If granted, the SIV designation provides recipients the same support and services that are provided to refugees, including help with housing, finding a job and enrolling children in school.

Each Afghan refugee or family will be met by resettlement staff at the airport.

“We will then bring them to a furnished home and make sure they have clothes, food and basic essentials,” Smith-Tapia said. “In the days following their arrival, we will provide essential, immediate and longer-term assistance.”

» READ MORE: Democrats and Republicans from Pa. and N.J. agree: The result of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a tragedy

Staff and volunteers also will assist resettled Afghans with medical appointments, English courses, peer support, transportation and job hunting.

JFCS officials could not say precisely when the first displaced family granted a special visa will make it to Pittsburgh, but anticipate them to get here within the next week or two.

Smith-Tapia urged Western Pennsylvanians to “welcome these individuals and families as they make Pittsburgh their home.”

Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh will be assisting with housing and other needs, as will groups such as Action Housing, The Global Switchboard, Ansar of Pittsburgh, Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Association on Aging. The Salvation Army, United Way of Southwestern PA, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Casa San Jose are coordinating the collection and distribution of in-kind donations for refugees.

“We are taking a community approach because we know that welcoming refugees is not only our responsibility, it’s the work of our community,” Smith-Tapia said. “And if we work together, it’s going to be more successful.”

It’ll take several months to a year or more for additional waves of Afghan nationals to get approved via the “Priority 2” option rolled out in early August. The P-2 designation expanded eligibility to more types of Afghan allies, including those who worked for U.S.-backed nongovernmental organizations and media outlets or worked for the military but did not meet existing special visa requirements.

The program has proved cumbersome and slow-moving, prompting efforts to help streamline the process by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Governance and Markets. Pitt volunteers are helping Afghan applicants get letters of verification from their former U.S. employers.

Pittsburgh was chosen by the Department of State as one of 25 U.S. cities and among a handful in the Northeast available for resettlement through the special immigrant visa program. Other options for Afghan refugees include Cleveland, Philadelphia, Elizabeth, N.J., and Albany, Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.

Texas agencies are preparing for more than 300 pending arrivals across Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston. Also accepting refugees will be Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Portland.