Afghan evacuees disembark the plane and board a bus after landing at Skopje International Airport, North Macedonia, on Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, file)

Afghan evacuees disembark the plane and board a bus after landing at Skopje International Airport, North Macedonia, on Sept. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski, file)

‘They are safe here.’ Snohomish County welcomes hundreds of Afghans

The county’s welcoming center has been a hub of services and assistance for migrants fleeing Afghanistan since October.

EVERETT — Amid the Taliban’s rise, more than 300 evacuees from Afghanistan were welcomed to Snohomish County between October and the end of January.

Another 150 were expected by mid-February, advocates say.

Those numbers don’t account for all arrivals from Afghanistan, only those served by a welcoming center the county stood up in October. The increase this month is due to the federal government’s move to resettle all those still staying on U.S. military bases by Feb. 15.

Officials and advocates prefer not to say what places are seeing newfound Afghan communities due to concerns over threats of violence.

Shortly after Taliban forces seized control of the country, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers expected 1,200 Afghans to resettle here. That estimate hasn’t changed as people continue to flee Afghanistan, said Alessandra Durham, a senior policy analyst in the executive’s office.

Officials estimate fewer than 600 Afghans have resettled throughout all of Washington between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 28, 2021, state refugee coordinator Sarah Peterson said in an email. Most arrived in the final months of that period, as the Afghan government collapsed and American forces evacuated.

Under Operation Allies Welcome, nearly 2,600 arrived to the state between Sept. 28 and Feb. 8. That includes an uptick in recent weeks. For example, 191 arrived between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8.

Over the past few years, Washington could expect about 8% of all Afghan arrivals to the United States. Most arrived in King County, with some settling in Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane counties, said Ilene Stohl, of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Evacuees can arrive in Washington in a few different ways. They can come through local refugee resettlement agencies, community connections or private sponsorships. Or they could leave the military bases they first arrived at voluntarily to resettle without the support of any organization.

What might that first day look like here?

Locals go to the airport to pick up people arriving from Afghanistan and bring them to an extended-stay hotel stocked with food and blankets.

“If this program didn’t exist, we would see people coming into Snohomish County and perhaps entering almost immediately into homelessness,” Durham said.

The goal is to quickly get the arrivals into more stable housing, like an apartment. The longest it has taken is five weeks, she said earlier this month.

In the meantime, the county’s welcoming center, staffed by Volunteers of America and others, can connect them with a “suite of services,” Durham said. Afghan migrants often arrive in Snohomish County with nothing but the clothes on their back.

At the center, they can get clothes and hygiene supplies. Navigators connect them with benefits, like rental assistance or whatever else they may be eligible for. There’s a medical provider onsite for exams and referrals for more comprehensive care, if needed. Another medical team administers COVID-19 vaccines and dental work, one of the most requested services, Durham said.

While there, arrivals can also get a cooked meal made by a local Afghan-owned business and take part in prayer service led by a local imam. Meeting with other Afghans there, they can also build connections with compatriots in a strange new country.

After they leave the welcoming center, Afghan migrants still have help. Local resettlement groups follow up with new arrivals to ensure they’re doing well, said Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, based at Everett Community College. Those check-ins happen after 30 days, 60 days, 90, 180 and 365.

“They know they are safe here,” Dinh-Kuno said. “They know they have a support system.”

The welcoming center’s exact location hasn’t been disclosed out of fear of threats.

The center’s funding so far has largely come from the county budget and homeless prevention dollars. Earlier this month, Snohomish County got over $2 million in help from a state Afghan assistance program to fund the resettlement of the additional 150 recent arrivals.

Somers, the county council and local advocates also requested money from the state’s legislative delegation in December.

“We believe this critical work is helping to change the trajectory of many newly arrived refugees’ lives as they begin to rebuild in Snohomish County,” they wrote in a letter to legislators.

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, is one local lawmaker spearheading that effort in Olympia. She said she’s made a request for $5.5 million in state dollars to support the county’s welcoming center. The money would be used for rental assistance and other services for people arriving from Afghanistan. She argued the aid makes both moral and economic sense.

“They’re coming with nothing and need to completely restart their lives,” said Robinson, a former PeaceCorps volunteer with a background in human services. Without the help, the migrants would likely “flounder,” she said.

The county expects a “slower trickle” of Afghans coming to Snohomish County as the economy there collapses under Taliban rule, Durham said. The welcoming center is predicted to stay open until September, at least. If the Legislature approves the $5.5 million, it could stay open for another year.

Most of those coming here are young people, Durham said. So they’ve grown up in a time of great tumult and violence in Afghanistan.

“The fact of the matter is these people have gone through some serious challenges,” Imam Azam Akram, of Monroe, said in a roundtable this month hosted by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. “It’s just generational trauma.”

Yet the arrivals Durham has worked with have been resilient, she said. When officials opened the welcoming center, they planned not to talk to the migrants about work for a few months. But people come to them trying to figure out what they can do to help.

“They had amazing careers back home and unfortunately had to leave them,” she said. “They’re looking for opportunities to become contributing members of our community.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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