Afghan families arrive in Rochester
Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota prepares to help resettle up to 16 families in the community.
When Abas Iqbali and his wife Ghira Sohrabi arrived at the Rochester International Airport in mid-October, no one was there to meet them.
The couple was, nonetheless, relieved to be there, considering they almost never got off the ground in Afghanistan in the first place.
In Kabul, the two narrowly escaped a bomb that killed at least 170 Afghan civilians along with 13 members of the U.S. military on Aug. 26.
After spending two days at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in hopes of leaving the country before flights from there ended under Taliban rule, they were airborne about 3:30 p.m. local time.
The bomb, which exploded near the waiting area where they had spent the past nearly 48 hours, detonated less than two hours after they took off. They learned of the attack only after landing in Bahrain.
“We had been in that same waiting area,” Sohrabi said through an interpreter this week.
“We saw the crowds of people trying to get to safety,” she added. “These were people like us who had passports and visas.”
The 10-minute wait at the airport in Rochester wasn’t the worst part of their journey. But, arriving in Minnesota after a month-long stay at the U.S. Marines base in Quantico, Virginia, speaking little English, and finding no one there to meet them made them a bit nervous, they said.
Iqbali worked for the U.S.-backed government that fell to the Taliban in August. He served on presidential security details there -- a job that made him a target for the Taliban. When the Taliban took over, he and his wife didn’t go out in public for more than two weeks. Eventually, he realized the window to leave the country was closing.
Once here, the identity badges they each wore around their necks prompted Rochester Airport staff to call Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, the local resettlement agency tasked with helping Afghan refugees.
Kristina Hammell, a case manager at Catholic Charities, scrambled to the airport to meet the couple.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” said John Meyers, Catholic Charities' director of refugee resettlement.
Catholic Charities staff were expecting a couple. However, they never heard from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the federal agency coordinating relocation of Afghanis, as to when the couple would be arriving. About a week later, another family, with children, arrived at the airport with no notice.
When a third Afghan family arrived Tuesday night on a flight from Chicago, Meyers was already there to greet them in person.
“This is more traditional,” he said.
Meyers intends to be at the gate to greet each of the Afghan arrivals in person. Meyers speaks Dari, a version of the Persian language widely used in Afghanistan. He spent about nine years in Afghanistan working for non-governmental organizations doing relief and development work from 2005 to 2014.
It was nearly midnight when he got into his car, headed to the airport and mentally brushed up on his Dari to welcome the couple and take them to their hotel.
Meyers said it’s understandable PRM neglected to tell Catholic Charities about the arrivals. PRM is working to find communities for the more than 50,000 people who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan after the Taliban toppled the U.S.-backed government there in August.
“There’s so many of these Afghans that have arrived at these bases,” Meyers said of eight military installations that are the first stop on U.S. soil.
The United Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services agreed to resettle up to 40 individual Afghanis or eight families. PRM asked the group to double that .
Over the next few months, Catholic Charities will help up to 16 families resettle in Rochester.
The city offers adult English language classes, has an active Muslim community and mosques, Halal food available and public transportation, Meyers said.
“That’s why Rochester is so appealing,” Meyers said. “A lot of the infrastructure is already there.”
Catholic Charities' main role will be to help arrivals find a home, enroll in English classes if needed, and enroll children in school and help them get the documents they need to work and live in Rochester.
As of now, two factors limit the number of refugees Catholic Charities can help.
“The housing truly limits the numbers we can bring,” he said. “Landlords require credit history, employment history and it takes time to build those up.”
The organization also relies on community support, Meyers said. Area mosques, businesses and nonprofits partner with Catholic Charities to help refugee families acclimate to the community.
“Catholic Charities works on administrative needs,” Meyers said, adding its support programs generally last 90 days.
Helping families find what they need to prosper here takes more time than that, Meyers said.
“There’s all sorts of wonderful things we’d like to do and show them what a wonderful place Minnesota is, but we just don’t have the staff or time.”
Finding more partners to fill that role will be key to help families adjust to Rochester, he said.
“Really, all I’m asking is to go have fun with them,” Meyers said.