“This is unprecedented – the last major humanitarian operation like this was after the Vietnam War,” said Jeff Kinney of Worcester-based Ascentria Care Alliance, which is working to bring about 400 evacuees to Worcester and western Massachusetts.
“But this one is massive because it happened so quickly and the relocation needs to be done so quickly,” Kinney said.
The challenge Massachusetts faces has sparked what has been referred to as “everything on deck” as cities like Worcester organize community-level efforts to provide temporary housing, set up volunteer-funders, and identify companies that are ready are to offer work to evacuees.
Meg Gallo of the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center in Boston said the effort was a huge undertaking. The organization is working to bring about 150 to 250 people into the state by March, she said.
But they got help, according to Gallo.
“The people of Massachusetts were absolutely phenomenal; There was a flurry of support, ”she said.
A family of three arrived in Massachusetts first on Friday, followed by another family on Sunday evening, proponents said.
The family, who arrived on Sunday, were greeted with hugs and handshakes by Mariam Gas, founder of the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center in Boston, and Mary Truong, director of the Department of Health’s Refugee and Immigrant Bureau.
The family included a mother and a father with three young children, a boy and two girls. Concerned for the safety of relatives still living in Afghanistan, Gallo asked not to publish their names.
Now that they have reached Massachusetts and are expected to relocate to Worcester, the father said he was looking forward to enrolling his children in school.
“This is very important to me,” he said of a translator. “I [also] I want my wife to be calm and not be afraid. We just want to start a peaceful life here in America. “
Gallo said the father worked for the United States while in Afghanistan.
The father said he lived in fear as he watched the Taliban overthrow various areas of Afghanistan before taking the capital, Kabul, in August.
“It was very scary for me and my family,” he said. “I’m so grateful to the people who helped me get out of there with my family. I’m so happy. And I am grateful to the people who welcome us here. “
These newcomers are expected to join hundreds of Afghan refugees and special visa holders who have worked with the US government who already reside in the state. Massachusetts has taken in more than 15,000 refugees from around the world in the past decade, according to proponents.
New evacuees from Afghanistan include people who have fled the Taliban-controlled country on account of the threat of persecution, including the oppression of women, violence and death.
Many of them along with their families helped American military and government officials during the war, said Tim Garvin, president and executive director of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, which is part of the Worcester Area Response.
“They’re American patriots in their own way,” said Garvin. “I am proud of what we do to support them.”
Governor Charlie Baker and other leaders said they would support efforts to bring evacuees into the state. Last month, Baker said in a tweet that the state was “ready to help Afghan refugees seeking security and peace in America.”
In a statement released over the weekend, a Baker spokesman reiterated that support.
“Massachusetts is excited to welcome the first Afghan evacuees to the Commonwealth and looks forward to working with the federal government and local nonprofits serving these populations as more evacuees arrive in the coming weeks and months,” the statement said .
Daniel Pereira, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said Sunday that the United States has a responsibility to Afghans who plan to relocate here.
“We fully support the right of these Afghan refugees to come to Boston, Massachusetts, and we hope that all organizations and the government here can help them start new lives here in the Commonwealth,” he said.
Another challenge is a bureaucratic matter.
Many of the Afghan evacuees do not qualify for refugee status under US law, but are instead “humanitarian probation officers,” said Jeffrey Thielman, president and chief executive officer of the International Institute of New England. The difference means that many evacuees are not eligible for refugee benefits, making the transition to a new life in the United States difficult.
Massachusetts officials are trying to correct some of the shortcomings.
State lawmakers are working on laws that will give Afghan evacuees access to MassHealth coverage, lawyers said Sunday.
State lawmakers are also considering a $ 12 million proposal to provide more financial aid and services to Afghan evacuees, including more caseworkers to help them access basic services.
Thielman said the additional funding will be critical to helping people transition – from learning English and job skills to navigating school systems and health care – and also to recruit clerks and other staff to assist.
His organization is looking for about 200 employees in Boston, Lowell and New Bedford and 50 more in New Hampshire.
The funding proposal is supported by Ascentria, IINE, along with other resettlement groups working to bring Afghan evacuees to the state – Catholic charity offices in Boston and Springfield, Jewish Family Services in Metrowest and Western Massachusetts, and the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center .
The proposed funding would be $ 7.5 million to cover the cost of $ 5,000 for individual one-time payments. cover up each of up to 1,500 Afghan evacuees in Massachusetts, according to the organizations. Most of the money would go towards covering clothing, food and shelter costs, while a quarter under the proposal would go to help resettlement providers.
Another $ 4.5 million would be allocated for legal aid to help people with their immigration status and a possible path to citizenship, the groups said.
Currently, according to Thielman, the evacuees would receive a one-time payment of around $ 1,000 per person through a federal program.
Evacuees “left Afghanistan very quickly and they did not have much time to adjust to life in this country,” said Thielman. “If we want the people in our country to have an accelerated integration process, we have to make additional resources available to them – and they will help us.”
As the state prepares for the influx of newcomers, some communities prepare to welcome the new residents.
Lawyers said they expected the families who arrived over the weekend to move temporarily in apartments in Worcester in the coming days, where the city expects to receive around 200 evacuees, according to Mayor Joseph Petty.
Petty said city officials were preparing to attend weekly meetings with organizations such as the United Way of Central Massachusetts, local businesses and representatives from the offices of Officer such as State Senator Harriette Chandler, US Representative James McGovern and US Senator Edward Markey.
The city’s school department will play a key role in helping the evacuees by working with children and their families, Petty said. Worcester officials are also working with local landlords to find apartments that can serve as new homes for the city’s new residents.
“Worcester has a history of over 100 years of hosting refugees … that makes us a welcoming community here,” said Petty. “It pays off in the long run by accepting the people here and making them feel needed and part of the culture.”
Globe correspondent Charlie McKenna contributed to this report.