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Head Of Immigration And Refugee Service Talks About Resettling Afghan Refugees

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We have been watching images of Afghans at the Kabul airport frantically trying to flee their country as the Taliban assumes control. Of particular note are Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S. military mission, often at great personal risk. They may qualify for special immigrant visas. Well, since the U.S. began evacuation flights in July, only a small fraction of them have arrived in the U.S. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of the agencies helping resettle these and other Afghan allies. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah is president and CEO. She's with us now.

Hey there. Welcome.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I want to get the latest on how resettlement is going, all the work you're doing, but if I may begin by asking just what you're feeling. You must be watching these images as well at the airport in Kabul.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Yeah, it's heart-wrenching to see so many fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Candidly, it's not surprising to advocates like myself and our organization just because we have been predicting this panic for months.

KELLY: Well, let me get into some of the numbers of how many have been evacuated. How many Afghans have arrived in the U.S. already?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: At least 1,200, but the numbers coming out from the administration are about 2,000.

KELLY: So it's somewhere in the low four digits. What is your best understanding of how many more may be trying to come?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: So we estimate that there are upwards of 80,000 allies and their family. Beyond that number, there are countless women's rights activists, journalists, academics, NGO workers and other civil society leaders who worked alongside us during those two decades.

KELLY: So walk us through how it works. The Afghans who have been approved to come, who have made it out - they are arriving and then being processed at Fort Lee, Va. Is that right?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Exactly. So I was actually at Fort Lee a week before, was able to meet with some of the families. They arrived there. For some, the final step was just the medical exam, and so that was conducted on base. And then the vast majority of them are now resettled in communities across the country.

KELLY: Where are they going? How does that get decided?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: We take into account whether they have family ties to a given state or city, whether there is a concentration of other Afghans that could provide a stable community to integrate into. And so we see concentrations particularly in Virginia, in California and in Texas.

KELLY: And then what happens? Because, of course, there's getting people here, and then there's helping them build a life here. What kind of jobs are you helping people connect into?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Many of them, they will go into really all different sectors. We help them to secure their initial housing, food, clothing, meeting their basic needs. Volunteers help us get them to English as a second language courses. We help enroll their children in public schools, and we connect them into the community so that, you know, they will learn to interact with their neighbors who we hope will ultimately become their extended family. For so many of them, they are leaving everything but a couple of suitcases behind. They're also grappling with the fear and anxiety of what, you know, what family - parents, siblings...

KELLY: Yeah.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: ...Other extended family who don't qualify for admissions through the SIV program.

KELLY: There's urgency to this, obviously. Back to the pictures of people trying to frantically to get out of the country because they fear their lives are in danger. What do you need? What could the U.S. government be doing to expedite the process?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: So this is where the increased U.S. military presence is an asset. I have the utmost confidence that with the control of the airport, we still can save the lives of our allies, but this is where the U.S. needs to act urgently. I truly believe that with community support, we can do the rest.

KELLY: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, thank you.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Thank you so much.

KELLY: She's head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.