A Mother's Day celebration for Afghan families hosted by JFCS East Bay in 2011. (Photo/File)
A Mother's Day celebration for Afghan families hosted by JFCS East Bay in 2011. (Photo/File)

‘We’re picking up people every day’: Jewish orgs scramble to assist Afghan refugees arriving in Bay Area

Until this year, Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley was helping to resettle about 50 refugees per year from all around the world. But the picture has changed suddenly and dramatically with the recent pullout of American troops from Afghanistan and the rapid takeover by the Taliban. Now, in August alone, JFS anticipates resettling 25 Afghans.

JFS, as well as Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, which does the same work, are now operating at lightning speed to help resettle a flood of Afghan refugees — roughly 130 between them — by the end of the month. HIAS, the national Jewish resettlement agency, is helping to assign the refugee cases.

JFS Silicon Valley’s executive director Mindy Berkowitz called the effort a “big push.”

“We’re picking up people every day,” she said. “It is requiring a lot of focus and comprehensive efforts on our part for this group who is a little different.”

How are they different? While those who are resettled through JFS of Silicon Valley and JFCS East Bay usually come through traditional immigration channels, the Afghans being brought to the United States right now come under Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, given to those who helped the Americans during the 20-year-long war either as translators, interpreters or in some other role and are now in danger as the Taliban take power. The SIVs expedite the process and qualify them for refugee status.

More than 1,700 Afghans with SIVs were evacuated from the country over a 24-hour period, according to the Associated Press.

It is woefully inhuman that these people just have to suffer.

While many refugees face mental health issues upon entering the United States, JFCS East Bay’s senior director of development Holly Taines White said, this particular group is especially prone due to the chaotic nature of the resettlement. Many have had to leave family members behind in Afghanistan.

“Every single SIV we’ve resettled has had threats against them, or their family members, or had a family member killed, or had a family member kidnapped, or had a friend who also worked with the United States who was pulled out of their house and killed on the street,” said White.

Upon entering the country, the refugees can either get connected with family living in the Bay Area or be placed in a temporary home until a more permanent solution is found.

The refugees are also linked up with volunteers who help them acclimate to life in America. One volunteer, Judy Kammeraad of Danville, will be meeting in person next week with an Afghan family who arrived this month, helping them with tasks such as setting up a bank account and getting the children signed up for school.

“We end up having friendships and special relationships with these folks,” said Kammeraad, who has been volunteering with JFCS East Bay since 2018 and is a retired nuclear physicist. “We have so much in common, we don’t even know it. They like to be with their family. They love their children. They love to see their children be happy. When you let all of these things called differences aside, we’re so much alike.”

When the U.S. military started evacuations out of Afghanistan, JFCS East Bay immediately began taking in those under the SIV program, along with their family members. So far this month, the organization has resettled 46 Afghans, and about 41 more are expected within the week; currently they are waiting at an Army base in Virginia. By the end of the month, the total in the East Bay is expected to exceed 100, White said.

To put it in perspective, the largest number of refugees the organization has assisted in a single year is 183, from all around the world. While JFCS East Bay has been resettling refugees since the 1930s, it has been working with Afghans in large numbers since 2008, and has resettled hundreds since then.

A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans, center, as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo/RNS-AP)
A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans, center, as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo/RNS-AP)

“This whole thing has been just super expedited,” said White. “Doing this work is deeply rooted in our history and our values.”

JFCS East Bay has also been collecting cash donations, as well as directing people toward an Amazon Wish List where one can purchase household items such as toasters, pillows and blenders for the refugees’ eventual permanent homes.

So far, White said her organization has raised close to $200,000 in donations, with an additional $75,000 worth of items purchased through the wish list along with $25,000 in gift cards.

Anita Cadonau-Huseby of Danville, who on Tuesday donated a few items through Amazon and also donated money, said she is also considering volunteering to help the incoming refugees. “I really reconcile with the Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger,” she said. “[We have to] treat folks with compassion and dignity.”

On Friday morning, President Joe Biden stated that “any American” who wanted to exit Afghanistan would be able to. His administration has faced criticism for underestimating the pace at which the Taliban would retake the country, and images of chaotic scenes of desperate Afghans at the Kabul airport have only added to that criticism.

More than 34,000 Afghans have been issued the special visa since 2014, and over 15,000 have relocated to the United States. Another 18,000 are in line for an SIV.

HIAS, the Jewish resettlement nonprofit, is lobbying the Biden administration to accept Afghans who don’t qualify for the SIV program but are considered at risk, such as activists and journalists, and who are major targets of the Taliban.

“All of these people face grave danger without immediate assistance,” said HIAS’ Western Region director Joe Goldman.

While the U.S. government has opened up an avenue for Afghans who are not eligible for SIVs — it’s called the P-2 program and includes people who have worked, for example, for U.S.-based NGOs and media groups — Goldman said this leaves tens of thousands still at risk.

As American Jews, he said, it’s imperative “to fight for the immediate evacuation for as many Afghans” as possible. “It is woefully inhuman that these people just have to suffer.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.