As the U.S. continues to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies , local resettlement agencies are preparing for refugees to arrive in Michigan.
Officials with two groups headquartered in Michigan that help refugees, Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services, told the Free Press Friday that they are expecting some refugees to arrive, but they do not know how many or when they may arrive.
“We are deeply saddened and concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan,” said Mihaela Mitrofan, director at Samaritas, which is based in Troy. “We are committed to be part of this lifesaving work and we are ready to serve the refugees.”
Mitrofan said her office has been receiving calls from Afghan families in Michigan who want to help and are worried about loved ones in their native land after it was taken over this month by the Taliban. Michigan has about 700 residents with roots in Afghanistan, a small number compared to other groups in the region, according to 2019 census data.
At Samaritas, “hate calls are coming in, unfortunately” from people angry over refugees arriving, Mitrofan said. “But they are amazingly overcome by the offers to help” from others.
Whitmer expresses support
Late Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released a statement of support for welcoming refugees from Afghanistan.
Whitmer said that “as Afghan families flee violence and political persecution, it is our duty and honor to welcome them with that fundamental Michigan spirit of friendliness. The State of Michigan embraces the opportunity to welcome Afghan families as they find a new home to begin their lives.”
Earlier in the week, both Republican and Democratic governors in Maryland, Utah, Oregon and California issued statements or made public comments expressing support for Afghan refugees.
Amid fears by some that Michigan can’t handle the new refugees, advocates noted that Michigan has taken in over the past year a very low number of refugees, only 240 people from Oct. 1 through July 31. Out of those 240 refugees, 12 were from Afghanistan, with 11 of them arriving in June and July. Michigan and the U.S. are on pace to admit the smallest number of refugees in at least 40 years, according to State Department data and refugee advocates.
Moreover, Michigan and its largest city, Detroit, have challenges with population growth, according to census 2020 data released earlier this month. From 2000 to 2020, Michigan had the slowest population growth, 1.4%, among the 49 states that had population growth. One state, West Virginia, had negative population growth during those 20 years. Detroit lost 10.5% of its population over the past decade, the biggest decrease among large cities in the U.S.
Based in Grand Rapids, Bethany Christian Services is an affiliate of two of nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department to resettle refugees, said Kristi Gleason, vice president of Refugee & Immigrant Family Services at Bethany.
Since 2015, Bethany has resettled almost 250 Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients, a category that includes children without their families and translators who had helped the U.S. military.
In a statement, Bethany said it “urges the Biden Administration to evacuate Afghan allies who served with U.S. forces and international aid organizations as well as religious minorities and human rights defenders. Bethany laments that many may be left behind and prays for their protection.”
Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, said: “Thousands of Afghans risked their lives to assist our military as translators, drivers and in other support roles. They faithfully supported the U.S. mission for decades, and we promised not to leave them behind.”
Over the last month, Bethany has resettled 24 refugees from Afghanistan, with one family arriving in Michigan, said Nate Bult, vice president of Public and Government Affairs at Bethany Christian Services.
Bult called upon the U.S. to be more active in trying to evacuate Americans and its Afghan allies.
Bult said that the U.S. should try to evacuate them to a territory like Guam instead of countries like Qatar, which said Friday it was at capacity.
Also, “people need to be able to get to the airport safely” in Kabul, Bult said. “The thing that we are hearing most is they cannot safely get to the airport because the Taliban controls the checkpoints.”
Bult said that “British troops and French troops have traveled” within Afghanistan to rescue its citizens. “We would urge the U.S. government to” do the same, he said.
Biden said Friday at a press conference that “we’ve made significant progress” in evacuating people in Afghanistan. “This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”
Critical of the Taliban
Meanwhile, some Muslim leaders in metro Detroit have been criticizing the Taliban’s takeover, saying the group is promoting terrorism and does not represent Islam.
Imam Mohammad Elahi, an Islamic and interfaith leader with the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, has repeatedly condemned the Taliban in his sermons over the past month.
“These are the same guys as ISIS, as al-Qaeda and the same ideology … ruthlessly attacking and terrorist activities for decades,” Elahi said this week. “I’m afraid about women in Afghanistan” being persecuted by the Taliban.
The imam of another prominent mosque, Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, also has slammed the Taliban, telling WDIV that the world shouldn’t be fooled by the group’s attempts to improve its image.
“The Taliban is déjà vu all over again,” Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni said. “It’s nothing new, despite Taliban’s leadership this time trying to present itself as more modern than what they used to be in the middle of 1990s.”
Waiting to hear
Whitmer said that the state is now waiting “to hear further details from the U.S. State Department” about Afghan refugees.
State agencies and departments “are gearing up to ensure Afghans who may come to our state have the support they need to succeed,” Whitmer said. “A network of departments across the state are at the ready to help ensure those who arrive in Michigan can get their feet on the ground.”
In recent years, Michigan has taken in one of the highest numbers of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. At times it sparked a backlash, with former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015 calling for a halt to admitting Syrian refugees. The number of refugees resettled in Michigan plummeted after Trump took office and Biden has maintained the historic low numbers.
Whitmer said that helping Afghan refugees is part of Michigan’s tradition.
“Michigan’s greatest strength is — and always has been — our people,” Whitmer said. “We have a rich history of multiculturalism — from the Dutch who settled in the West, to the Finns who mined the North, to the Middle-Easterners who made Dearborn a flourishing center for Arab culture, and countless others who make us who we are. People from around the world have come to Michigan over centuries for good-paying jobs, a high-quality education for their kids, and the right to live and worship freely.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo at email@example.com or Twitter @nwarikoo.