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As an Afghan family makes its way to Kansas City, the area faces a 'humanitarian crisis' of its own

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Courtesy of Ahmad Azizi
Ahmed Azizi is pursuing a triple-major in music, political science, and global and international studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

It's been years since Ahmad Azizi has seen his family, which has been stranded at a resettlement camp since August. Now that they're finally headed to the U.S., are local aid agencies ready to welcome them?

A University of Kansas student from Afghanistan who hasn’t seen his family for more than six years is looking forward to finally reuniting with them.

Ahmad Azizi, who goes by Baset ——-, originally moved to Lawrence to study music. In the years since, Azizi watched from a distance as the situation in his home country unraveled.

“I was really worried,” Azizi said. “My father worked with the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Just having that background, and me being in the U.S., we were really worried about what will happen.”

In August, as American forces left the country and the Taliban took control, his family fled Kabul. When they arrived at a resettlement camp in Abu Dhabi, they were stranded, along with thousands of other Afghans, for months.

Some of those refugees staged protests in February, according to the Wall Street Journal, over what some considered prison-like conditions at the facility.

“Even for my family it was a little bit challenging at the beginning, because they couldn't go outside and walk, they needed to be inside the room all the time,” Azizi said. “For a couple of months, no one was leaving that camp and they did not know what their future would look like. And so for that reason they were not really doing fine mentally.”

But this week, the family boarded a plane to Washington, where they arrived on Wednesday. Azizi’s mother, father and three sisters will be quarantined there for two weeks before making their way to the Kansas City area.

“We’re very excited,” Azizi told KCUR’s Up To Date on Friday.

“I was 16 years old when I left Afghanistan (and last saw my family), and now I'm an old man, as you see,” laughed the 22-year-old.

Resettling a family

Though he’s overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with his family, Azizi knows they will have a whole new set of challenges when they arrive — something he's more familiar with now because of his work helping other Afghans who made the move after him.

“Just helping my friends in Lawrence, I learned so much,” Azizi said. “When my family's coming here, I will have an easier time, at least, helping them to figure out life.”

Resettlement agencies, tasked with helping the new arrivals secure housing and work in a new country, find themselves struggling to handle a wave of arrivals from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.

“The biggest challenge,” said Dr. Sofia Khan, “was the speed with which the refugees were coming” following America's withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

A woman wearing a headscarf  stand amidst a cluttered space filled with blankets, clothes, plastic bins. She is standing near a small, red mattress and pillow that she unfurled.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan unrolls a toshak, a thin mattress used in many Afghan homes instead of sofas or chairs. Khan said volunteers used donated cushions and pillows, and covered them with fabric to make toshaks they could deliver to clients.

Khan is the founder of KC for Refugees, which helps provide refugee services that other agencies can’t or don’t provide.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, fewer than 12,000 refugees were admitted into the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. But more than 8,000 have been admitted in just the last six months.

“Suddenly a stack of people came; they had no place but hotels to put them in,” Khan said. “I call it a humanitarian crisis, as much as we can be in a humanitarian crisis here in Kansas City.”

Ryan Hudnall agrees. He’s the executive director of Della Lamb Community Services, a social, youth and refugee services nonprofit in Kansas City.

“The volatility in resettlement doesn't lend us to being able to have those really strong systems to respond to this crisis,” he said.

According to Hudnall, government resources for refugees in this region are limited to about $1,000 per person, which creates a lot of uncertainty in their transition.

“If you identify suitable housing for them, you pay the security deposit, and once you pay first month's rent, the resources are gone,” he said. “At that point, private donations are so important and then also enrollment into subsequent programs.”

The forgotten refugees

For some Afghans in the U.S. and the agencies that work with them, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February complicated the situation, coming on the heels of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Humanitarian catastrophes like the invasion get a lot of media attention, Khan said, and can stoke excitement among supporters and volunteers, which helps propel their work on behalf of a new set of refugees.

“Unfortunately, the Afghans did not get that share of excitement, because they are still needing a lot of support,” she said. “They're still stuck in hotels, their (families) back home are still not united with them and (are) struggling.”

Khan told KCUR’s Real Humans podcast this month that she has received messages from people looking to host Ukrainians only, a request she’s never gotten for any other group of refugees.

Hudnall said Della Lamb recently emailed volunteers to communicate that they should be prepared to help families that are not from Ukraine.

Still, neither organization is in any position to turn down help, and the recent refugee surge has put them on better ground to handle the expected surge of Ukrainians.

“For us, every community is the same: whether they're from Congo or Afghanistan or Syria, whatever they need, we'll be ready,” Khan said.

Azizi said friends back home and elsewhere have told him that, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they didn’t feel they were getting the support they needed.

Head on medium shot of young man on the left with dark hair, trim moustache and beard wearing a light brown suit and playing a trumpet standing next to the conductor of the U.S. Army Band in dress uniform with his back to the camera as he leads the band.
Courtesy of Ahmad Azizi
On September 11, 2021, Ahmad Azizi, left, performed with the U.S. Army Band in Washington, where he also laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

For now, though, his first priority is to find his family a place to live — preferably in Lawrence or the Kansas City area.

“I'm really excited to see them. I think we can figure this out together,” he said. “The community’s supportive … but I’m very grateful to have them after so many years of being apart.”

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The Kansas City region has long been a place where different ways of life collide. I tell the stories of people living and working where race, culture and ethnicity intersect. I examine racial equity and disparity, highlight the area's ethnic groups and communities of color, and invite all of Kansas City to explore meaningful ways to bond with and embrace cultures different from their own. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz