Thousands of panicked Afghans flooded the runway, pounding the belly of the taxiing military plane. Thousands more were crammed side by side inside the hold, clinging to each other in relief and solidarity. As their safety arch rose into the air, shaking phone videos from the shimmering heat of the runway caught the stain of a free-falling body – an unhappy soul whose failed grip on the landing gear in closure denied him a future free from Taliban domination.
These images of the Kabul airlift operation in August 2021 are as likely to become photojournalistic icons as much as the tanks in Tiananmen Square, the evacuation of the embassy in Saigon or the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what happened to the people on these planes? Where were they evacuated and what happened to them?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1% of the world’s population – some 78 million people – have been displaced by conflict. These people are largely from a handful of countries: mainly Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar and Afghanistan. But the United States hosts on average less than 0.1% of the world’s refugees. From this latest evacuation effort, Kansas City now has the privilege of welcoming 550 Afghans to our community.
The process isn’t as straightforward as getting on a plane in Kabul and showing up at Kansas City International Airport. The majority of refugees are caught in a bureaucratic maze that can last for years, often languishing in unsanitary camps, battling the elements, disease, poverty and hunger. At a camp in Greece where I volunteered last year, an informant told me he had been in the system for six years. Another tried to to swim to Syria via Turkey because the conditions in the camp were so harsh.
However, our new arrivals from the Kabul airlift have been expedited with special immigration visas. In recent months, they have undergone a process of control over military bases, mainly in Turkey or Germany. Once cleared, they are airlifted to military bases in the United States, where their cases are turned over to one of the country’s nine volunteer resettlement agencies.
Della Lamb, Catholic Charities and Jewish Vocational Services are the three main agencies in Kansas City that have helped resettle our existing communities of over 22,000 refugees. However, this recent and unprecedented influx from Afghanistan means that these agencies are depleted. As a prospect, over the past five years combined, approximately 350 Afghans have been resettled in Kansas City. That same figure has been surpassed just since Thanksgiving, not to mention cases of people of other nationalities also being processed.
Government funding for a refugee family typically dries up after around 90 days – an incredibly short period of time to settle in a new foreign culture. This is where agencies like RefugeKC come in. Acting as the last link in the service chain, RefugeKC offers newcomers English courses, employment assistance and citizenship courses. Director Rich Casebolt is looking to provide longer term service beyond that typical 90 day window to welcome “our new American neighbors”.
Other local faith groups have combined their efforts with these agencies to provide a warm welcome to Kansas City. Strangers No More, a coalition of Jewish and Christian women, has assembled dozens of welcome baskets to deliver to our newly resettled neighbors. People Teams, an extension of the Kansas City Baptist Association, operates a soccer club and a children’s youth group. “We have a unique opportunity to welcome nations and seek the well-being of the city with our new American neighbors,” said Casebolt.
Kansas City, our call to action is here. Our new neighbors have shown courage and determination to join us. Let us offer a warm welcome by helping our local relocation agencies and befriending the stranger among us so that we are no longer strangers.
Joel Bond, originally from Olathe, has spent the past five years in Iraq working as an educator and advocate for refugees and internally displaced people.