Middle Tennessee groups prepare for Afghan refugee arrivals

By: - October 25, 2021 5:00 am
Afghan-American residents of Nashville, photographed during a recent rally, will help refugees as the settle in the area. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Afghan-American residents of Nashville, photographed during a recent rally, will help refugees as the settle in the area. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Middle Tennessee refugee resettlement programs need all the help they can get to properly welcome Afghan refugees coming to Nashville

At least 300 Afghan refugees will arrive at the Nashville International airport in the next few months and several nonprofit organizations—United Way of Greater Nashville, Catholic Charities of Tennessee, the Nashville International Center for Empowerment and the American Muslim Advisory Council—have teamed up to establish a citywide fundraising campaign to provide the refugees with healthcare, legal services, housing and food, among other necessities.

Afghan refugees were initially classified as parolees in order to expedite their resettlement but were ineligible for most federal assistance. On Sept. 30, the Congress passed legislation allowing the Afghans to receive federal benefits.

But with no clear timeline for their arrival, officials are still gathering what resources available in a pandemic. 

In the meantime, Nashville’s normally quiet Afghan community offers their services.

Nashville’s Afghan community is relatively new, compared to other area immigrant communities. Over the past 10 years, Afghans who served as translators for the U.S. military and other refugees resettled with their families in Nashville and focused on rebuilding their lives. But in the past few months, Afghans living in Nashville have reacted to Taliban forces taking back control of Afghanistan.

How to help:

  • Donate money.
  • Donate new items, including pots and pans, towel sets, blankets, Tupperware, pressure cookers, bathroom rugs, bed linens in twin, double and single sizes.
  • For more information on drop-off locations and other ways to assist, go to www.amactn.org

In August 2021, the world watched Kabul collapse under a terrorist organization, erasing decades of progress and U.S. efforts to stabilize the new regime in Afghanistan.  

News footage showed Afghans chaotically storming to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Mothers handed babies to U.S. soldiers over barbed-wire walls in a desperate bid to save their children from Taliban forces.

In response, Nashville’s Afghan community organized protests while recognizing they were among the few who were able to escape in time.

Hangama Wahidi, president of the Nashville Afghan Association, estimates that there’s 2,000 Afghan-Americans now living in Nashville. And the community was quick to step up and aid refugee-resettlement organizations.

“We were panicking. We were like, what do we need to do because they don’t have anything,” said Wahidi.  

Afghan volunteers needed to pass background checks in order to assist in the refugee resettlement program. Once done, they were able to offer their much needed services, such as transportation and translating, to assist refugee officials.

Oftentimes, Wahidi receives the call to mobilize just hours before refugees are due to arrive. In this short amount of time, Afghan volunteers coordinate with refugee organizations and scramble to find all the necessities needed to start a new life in a foreign country. 

Through social media, the Afghan community was able to gather $8,000 to buy necessities, such as cooking spices and food, but soon realized that the refugees were coming with nothing but the clothes on their back. Community leaders changed strategies to focus on buying gift cards for shopping.  

Ezaz Noori served as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan before being relocated, along with his family, to Nashville in 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Ezaz Noori served as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan before being relocated, along with his family, to Nashville in 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Refugee organizations are in charge of most of the resettlement process, such as finding housing on short notice. Amid a pandemic and a city with few affordable housing options, this isn’t easy, said Louisa Saratora, state refugee coordinator of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities.

Some refugees have already arrived and families are currently being housed in hotels for the time being, including a family of 11. 

“We’re still figuring out what different needs and resources this group might need,” she said, adding that volunteers have offered temporary-housing options. 

The Catholic Charities Diocese of Nashville has decades of experience helping refugees settle into their new lives, but over the last few years, they were forced to scale back staff due to dwindling budgets under the Trump Administration’s conservative immigration policies.   

“The last administration’s progressive cuts had a long term impact on services that had experience in handling the refugee process,” said Rick Musacchio, director of communications at Catholic Charities.

Under President Joe Biden, refugee numbers were increased from 15,000  to 62,500. Biden initially hesitated to increase the refugee limit but received backlash from Democrats and refugee advocates. 

Still, the Biden Administration did not anticipate that 62,500 refugees would seek entry into the U.S., and over the span of a few weeks, nearly 130,000 Afghans and U.S. citizens were airlifted out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history, reported AP News.  At least 50,000 were expected to be admitted into the U.S.

Biden increased the previous refugee cap to 125,000 on Oct. 1, although this decision came too late to aid Afghans fleeing Afghanistan.

By nightfall, Afghan volunteers and refugee officials are ready to meet the refugees at the airport, having spent most of the day preparing necessities for their new lives. 

It’s here where the Afghan volunteers shine, said Saratora. Some refugees already have family waiting for them in Nashville, and for others, Afghan volunteers offer a warm and familiar welcome.

Refugees are also being resettled in other parts of the state—including Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga and refugee organizations are seeing similar responses from the Afghan communities as well.

“To provide support and traditional welcomes when they get here, that’s a tremendous resource,” she said. 

Refugee-resettlement organizations hope to have refugees back on their own two feet within a few months, but amid a pandemic and few resources, this may be difficult.

“The pipeline was really scaled back and it was going to take a while to get everything back up and running,” said Mussachio.  

Despite this, the Afghan community is hopeful. With limited housing options, Wahidi has received word that some Nashville residents have offered their Airbnb listings as temporary housing. 

As Metro Nashville officials and others continue to raise funds for refugee families, Wahidi can’t help but feel hopeful.  

“Their support is amazing. The whole Nashville community is amazing. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” said Wahidi.


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.