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Rogers Park Prepares To Welcome Afghan Refugees

Leen Yassine | The PhoenixRogers Park and other communities throughout Chicago begin to play their part in resettling displaced Afghan refugees post the U.S.’ withdrawal from the country in August.

It’s been over two months since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, and Chicago is gearing up for an influx of Afghan refugees, especially in Rogers Park and neighboring communities.

Jamia Jowers, board president of the Chicago Refugee Coalition, said although the number is fluid, over 800 Afghan refugees are expected to resettle in Illinois, and Chicago is expected to take in about one-third — including Rogers Park, a diverse neighborhood where many refugees from across the world have already resettled.  

“Our [neighborhoods] are going to see an uptick in their Afghan neighbors given that there are very strong refugee community networks there,” Jowers said. “Expect that we’d receive a few hundred [refugees] by the end of the calendar year.”

However, this isn’t an overnight process. Despite the U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan taking place more than two months ago, many refugees still haven’t been resettled.

“I think what most people don’t understand is that we’re not getting them immediately,” Jowers said. “There’s a processing. There’s a timeline that the refugees are going to have, so we likely won’t see the influx for another two, maybe three months.”

World Relief Chicagoland — a Christian humanitarian organization that works with refugees and immigrants in vulnerable situations — has resettled about Afghan 500 refugees in Chicago and neighboring suburbs over the last 40 years or so, according to Gaby Keim, who works for the organization’s development team.

World Relief Chicagoland expects to receive 235 Afghan refugees over the next several months, but Keim said she’s unsure of how many will be resettled in Rogers Park.

Carrie Woodward, who also works on World Relief Chicagoland’s development team, said clients and former clients reached out to the organization for help after the U.S.’ withdrawal back in August.

“We really saw those staff flooded with questions and concerns from Afghan people we’ve worked with in the past,” Woodward said. “Specifically with the immigration legal services, we know that a lot of people are asking help for themselves but also for their family members who may still be in Afghanistan.”

Keim and Woodward said World Relief Chicagoland had more refugees arrive in September than it has seen since January 2017.

“That is in addition to all the arrivals coming from Afghanistan, so I think that just kind of paints a picture of where we are organizationally,” Woodward said. “The refugee resettlement program was systematically dismantled over a period of time, and now that we’re expecting more refugees as a nation, it’s an awesome opportunity for World Relief and our peers to rebuild and get back to where we were before as refugee resettlement organizations.”

The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. dropped significantly under the Trump administration, The Phoenix reported in 2018 and 2019. The Biden administration raised the nation’s refugee admissions cap last month to allow for a greater influx of refugees after years of historically low limits.

“Today, I am revising the United States’ annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year,” Biden wrote in a May 2021 statement. “This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America’s values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees.”

Biden wrote that he’s planning on raising the admissions’ goal to 125,000 for the coming fiscal year.

There’s uncertainty regarding how many refugees will be resettling in the Chicago area, said Ashley Marine, executive director of GirlForward, a non-profit in Chicago that supports girls who escape conflict. Marine said she has heard unofficial numbers ranging from around 300 to 500 refugees that may be resettling in the city.

“There’s just a lot of uncertainty, but what we do know is they will be coming,” Marine said. “So [we’re] getting prepared for their services, especially after four years under the last administration when numbers were lower and the refugee resettlement program was being pretty much systematically dismantled.”

Other organizations, including the Chicago Refugee Coalition and World Relief Chicagoland, provide refugees with resettlement services such as English classes, poverty relief, legal support, financial literacy and access to clothing, food and other essentials.

Dr. Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, an associate professor of anthropology at Loyola who’s been working with undocumented and mixed status communities for the past 15 years, said raising a cap “can literally be life or death.”

“The stakes could not be higher,” Gomberg-Munoz said. “And yet, in some ways, deciding to raise a cap is such a modest and sort of arbitrary band-aid on what is really a massively dysfunctional system.”

Gomberg-Munoz said the vast majority of human history has been characterized by people being able to move to safety.

“All of these policies, just the very idea that there should be a cap on who can flee to safety, is completely inconsistent with our larger human histories,” Gomberg-Munoz said.

Leslie Perkins, chief of staff for 49th ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden, said she hopes the incoming Afghan refugees feel at home in Rogers Park and neighboring areas.

“This is something that we fully support,” Perkins said. “We want to make sure that when they arrive here that they feel welcome, that they have a home in our neighborhood even though it’s so far away from their homeland.”

An earlier version of this story referred to World Relief Chicagoland as World Relief Chicago and misspelled Gaby Keim’s first name. The story has been edited to correct these errors.

The article also incorrectly reported that World Relief Chicagoland has resettled 500 refugees and is planning on resettling 150 more within the coming months. The story has been edited to state that 500 Afghan refugees have been resettled by World Relief Chicagoland, and another 235 Afghan refugees will be resettled through the organization this year.

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