The sudden crush of thousands of Afghans who arrived in Houston last fall forced local refugee resettlement agencies to drastically expand services in a matter of weeks.
Houston’s role as the top destination for evacuated Afghans stressed these agencies, which had diminished in scope following Trump-era cuts to refugee resettlement.
But leaders for these groups say there’s an unforeseen silver lining to the logistical hurdle of resettling more than 5,500 Afghans: Refugee resettlement in Houston is back and organizations are better prepared to welcome refugees from around the world.
“That was a test,” said Ali Al Sudani, who oversaw the quick expansion of refugee resettlement at Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston last fall. “That’s going to help us prepare for coming years.”
In the unpredictable world of refugee resettlement, organizations rely on a mix of public and private funds to maintain their programs. Agencies get money from the U.S. State Department for each new person they resettle. So when the Trump administration dropped the number of refugee arrivals to a fraction of Obama-era numbers, that funding stream largely dried up.
The Houston area has been a historic hub for refugee resettlement. During the time of these funding cuts, local agencies took a major hit, limiting their capacity to serve local refugees. Larger groups got help from the region’s deep-pocketed philanthropists. But one small Houston-area organization retained just a single staffer to handle all new arrivals; other agencies shuffled positions or didn’t replace staff when people quit.
Elsewhere in the U.S. small refugee resettlement agencies shut their doors.
Then, about a year ago, everything changed. In September 2021, planes began shuttling beleaguered Afghan families from U.S. military bases to Houston. Many were starting new lives with just a suitcase, limited or no English and still wrecked from the trauma of a violent and sudden departure from their homes.
Agencies staffed up and scaled up their operations — refugee resettlement was back.
It was a rough ride. Some frustrated Afghans waited weeks in extended stay hotels and overworked caseworkers drove pregnant mothers, who suddenly had to worry about insurance and health care costs, to doctor appointments. Social Security cards were mailed to addresses people had left.
Staff stepped up, working long hours to meet Afghan families’ needs, and faith communities, veterans, hotel owners also came together to lend a hand — one person even donated a cow that could be slaughtered according to halal guidelines. A significant boost in support could be attributed to Americans’ rare bipartisan support for this particular immigrant population, due in part to the fierce allyship of U.S. veterans who depended on Afghans during the 20-year occupation of their country.
More evacuated Afghans resettled in Houston than any other U.S. city — in fact, Houston took in more of these families than 47 U.S. states — some 5,600 evacuated Afghans. Houston became home for about half of all Afghans who resettled in Texas.
Now that early interventions — the airport pickups, the apartment placements and school enrollments — have concluded the next phase of services involves language education, career counseling and time-intensive case support to help immigrants file the paperwork to remain in the country legally.
I don’t really have anything to add here except “welcome”. It’s not that long ago that Greg Abbott was demonizing Syrian refugees, so at least we’re not going through that again. God bless all the helpers, and I wish our new neighbors the very best.