Massi Faqiri is allowing himself to be cautiously thankful this Thanksgiving.
His family has made it out of Afghanistan — for now.
Faqiri’s parents, two sisters and grandmother have made it out of the country that is now under Taliban control.
“Their status is still not clear,” he said.
Faqiri, who is working in Rochester under a work visa, hopes he and his family qualify for asylum in the U.S.
His family, with the exception of his father, were evacuated by a nongovernmental organization to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. His father made it Istanbul, Turkey.
Faqiri said it will likely be another three to six months before they all have their immigration paperwork complete to relocate to Canada or the U.S.
“I’m grateful they did make it out,” he said.
His family belongs to the Hazara ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Faqiri said Hazaras were discriminated against and excluded from government participation under Taliban rule. That, along with him living in the U.S., could have put his family members at risk of discrimination, arrest or worse under the Taliban regime, he said.
He has thought of little else since the Taliban took over the country, he said.
However, on Saturday night, another Afghan family occupied his thoughts. Faqiri hosted a family from Afghanistan that recently arrived in Rochester to resettle in southern Minnesota. Five families, for a total of 22 people, have arrived in Rochester as of Sunday. Three more families are expected to arrive early this week with a total of five families expected by the end of next week.
Faqiri said he wanted to help make them feel welcome in a community that, so far, has few people from Afghanistan.
However, that’s about to change.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the federal agency coordinating relocation of Afghan refugees and evacuees, has asked Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota to coordinate placing up to 20 families in Rochester through mid-February.
Tens of thousands of evacuees are temporarily living on military bases throughout the U.S. after being evacuated from Afghanistan in August.
Catholic Charities is looking for help with resettlement.
Over the summer, months before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Catholic Charities launched a program for nonprofit groups to sponsor refugee families. Their request met with little response.
“Nobody really came into the picture,” said Kristina Hammell, case manager at Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota.
In August, when people from Afghanistan began arriving in the U.S., Catholic Charities began hearing responses to its plea.
“The fire didn’t get lit until those recent events,” Hammell said. “They became a clear tangible group that people were interested in helping.”
Since then, more than half a dozen nonprofits have stepped forward to do their part to help some of the up to 20 families from Afghanistan that are expected to resettle in Rochester.
One group, from Autumn Ridge Church, has completed a Catholic Charities training course and is working with one of the families that has arrived in Rochester.
“Our families are engaging with them as if they are their neighbors,” said Otis Hall, executive pastor at Autumn Ridge Church.
A group of 18 people is working directly with one family and another group from the church is working through the community partner training and orientation.
“It really does take that number of people to coordinate transportation, rides, and have someone there when they’re needed,” Hall said.
The goal of the community partner program is to pair religious and nonprofit organizations with incoming refugee and new arrival families. It’s a six month commitment and a throwback to an older approach to helping settle refugee families.
Before the The State Department standardized the refugee intake process, churches would often be the lead and only organization working with refugee families. Churches would provide food and housing and supply other needs until the refugees became established in the community.
“These churches would literally sponsor families,” Hammell said.
The churches didn’t always meet the needs of the families in the same way, Hammell said. In recent years, the process has become more standardized to fit government regulations. Which Hammell says is a good thing for families that arrive.
“In terms of services and making sure they get what they need, we want to make sure their experiences are as equitable as possible,” she said.
Each family has different needs and varying levels of English proficiency. It’s up to the case managers at Catholic Charities to meet each of those family's needs. They help the families sign up for language classes and federal nutrition programs such as WIC, make sure arrivals get health insurance and get kids enrolled in school. While that helps families with day-to-day essentials, Hammell said the system lost a personal touch.
“There’s something to be said about people being engaged and compassionate with one family,” she said.
The community sponsors get to do the “fun part,” said John Meyers, Catholic Charities' director of refugee resettlement.
Meyers said Rochester is a good choice for the resettlement program for multiple reasons, including a sizable Muslim population, Halal food stores, and multiple programs and organizations that help international arrivals. The Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association and the Rochester Muslim Community Circle have both offered assistance. However, there is a language barrier between most of the recent arrivals and the populations of Muslims already here.
“I do not speak Dari, and that’s my biggest drawback for helping right now,” said Rashid Fehmi, of the RMCC.
Dari is a Persian language widely used in Afghanistan. Few people here speak the language.
Nonetheless, he has hosted one of the families for dinner and said RMCC is prepared to help other families as they arrive. Members of an employee assistance program from Mayo Clinic have also volunteered to assist.
Anwar Haq, who owns the International Spices grocery store in downtown Rochester, has seen waves of new immigrants to the community since opening the store in 1994. He speaks eight languages and has helped welcome Sudanese, Somali, Iraqi and other arrivals in his time running the store.
“God gives me health, he gives me everything, why not help,” he said. “It’s my community; I don’t care where they’re from, they’re here.”
Dari isn’t one of Haq'a eight languages, but he was able to speak with members of one of the arriving families in Urdu, a language spoken in parts of India, Pakistan and other areas of Asia.
Meyers said Haq’s welcoming demeanor and store communicate well enough when families go there to buy food.
“It’s a familiar kind of space for them,” Meyers said.
Meyers is one of the few people in town who does speak Dari, having spent about nine years in Afghanistan working for non-governmental organizations from 2005 to 2014.
Faqiri said he was glad to host a family for dinner and looks forward to seeing more Afghan arrivals in the community as well. Helping others has been a welcome diversion from worrying about his own family.
His hope is that his family can join him in Rochester and meet his new friends who are resettling here.
“I would love that,” he said. "I've never been in an Afghan community outside of Afghanistan."