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Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)
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Coloradans Are Leading Efforts to Protect and Resettle Afghan Refugees

As Rep. Jason Crow continues to champion the cause in Congress, local organizations are readying to receive people arriving under the Special Immigrant Visa program.

Representative Jason Crow remembers spending long hours in safe houses with Afghan interpreters talking about each other’s families. He remembers the taste of the tea they always shared with him. He remembers the games of chess they played, which he almost always lost. But most importantly, the former Army Ranger remembers that without the help of those allies, he wouldn’t have made it out of Afghanistan alive.

“On more than one occasion, my interpreter would pull me aside and tell me that the person we were talking to was lying to me. That I was at risk. That the person I was talking to was an insurgent,” says Crow, who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That’s such an essential role, more than just translating, really. We wouldn’t have been able to effectively accomplish our mission without them.”

As the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan over the past few months and the country came under Taliban control in the last week, the Colorado congressman has worked to honor those relationships. Crow is one of the most prominent voices calling for the United States to develop a plan to protect Afghan people who worked with American forces throughout the past 20 years.

“From a personal perspective, you know, these people have faces and names to me. It’s extremely important that we stand by these folks,” Crow says. “I believe the source of our power and strength as a country is our friends and allies and our partnerships.”

Crow’s calls to protect Afghan allies began back in April. As more and more U.S. troops began to leave the country ahead of Joe Biden’s September 11 deadline for full withdrawal, Crow and other humanitarian organizations voiced concerns that interpreters and others who aided American forces might face retribution from the Taliban. In June, he introduced The Averting Loss of Life and Injury By Expediting SIVs Act (ALLIES Act), which aimed to increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas available to Afghan translators by 8,000. After receiving support from other veterans, like Democrat Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Republican Peter Meijer from Michigan, the bill overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives on July 22, but has not received a vote in the Senate yet.

As the Taliban swiftly gained control of Afghanistan through early August, culminating with their takeover of the capital city, Kabul, earlier this week, the fears of Crow and many other veterans who served in Afghanistan had became a reality. Thousands of Afghan people descended on the Kabul airport in a frantic effort to flee the country on U.S. military planes and other transports.

On Monday, Crow called for the military to help keep the Kabul airport open so Americans and Afghan allies could have a way to get out of the country. United States’ armed forces have maintained control of a portion of the airport, but Crow doesn’t think that is enough.

“Right now, there is a military and civilian side of the airport,” he told 5280 on Wednesday morning. “We need to get things on the civilian side operating, so NGOs and other folks who have chartered flights can get their folks out. We also need to extend the security perimeter beyond the airport. Even if people are available for evacuation, and they have been told to go to the airport for evacuation, they can get there because the Taliban is preventing them from doing so.”

As Crow continues to use the power of his office to help the remaining allies in Afghanistan, local leaders and organizations are preparing to help refugees who are en route to Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday saying that the Centennial State stands ready to help Afghans who played a vital role assisting the military overseas.

Meanwhile, the three resettlement agencies that operate in Colorado—the African Community Center, Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, and the International Rescue Committee Denver—are gearing up to help an expected influx of Afghan refugees making it to the Centennial State in the coming months. Leaders for the three groups indicate Afghan refugees have made up a significant portion of their caseload in recent years, and they’ve seen the number of people coming to Colorado from Afghanistan increase in recent months.

It remains somewhat unclear how many Afghans the State Department—which works with resettlement agencies across the country to assure they are sending people to a place where they have necessary support—will ask the Colorado groups to aid in the near future. But the organizations indicate they are currently getting requests to receive individual families almost daily.

Once refugees arrive in the Centennial State, resettlement agencies will assist them with everyday needs: housing, jobs, education, and transportation. “We’re here to support them as needed for a maximum of five years,” says Jaime Koehler Blanchard, community programs manager for Lutheran Family Services. “Typically, we are getting people employed and kind of self sufficient and able to handle things on their own in the first six months to a year. But if something happened in the future, like a job loss, we are available to help on certain issues.”

That work can’t happen without the help of community members. All three agencies have programs that allow people to sponsor families during the resettlement process. They also accept monetary contributions, as well as donations of items like bedding and other living essentials.

“The refugee resettlement program has always been a partnership with communities,” says Ron Buzard, executive director at the African Community Center. “When community members step up and help out, that is where our capacity to support people comes from.”

If you’re looking to help those still struggling to get out of Afghanistan, Rep. Crow recommends contacting his office. His team is collecting names and information to send to the State Department to assist in vetting folks for evacuation.

Crow also notes that getting Afghan allies out of the country is just the beginning. “We’re going to have to make sure we are setting them up for success when they come to Colorado for resettlement,” he says. “We need to support them as a community and welcome them as the new Americans that they will be.”

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