Hedayatullah Akbari and his wife, Freshta Samadi, arrived at Jacksonville International Airport in February with three of their four children. After six years of working with the US government to secure visas and an unexpected delay due to the pandemic, the family have started life in the city, though they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their 15-year-old daughter, whose remaining visa has not been issued.
The children go to school while Akbari and Samadi work at Jinko Solar. They save to buy a car and possibly a house. Jacksonville is green, warm and safe, Akbari says – a stark difference from their old home in Afghanistan.
When the family arrived, a team of Catholic charities was there to meet them. An apartment with furniture and food awaited them on the south side, thanks to the church’s relocation program.
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The Akbari family received the same welcome as other families who arrived at more fruitful times for the agency. The cuts in staff and funding have not impacted Catholic Charities’ core mission, officials say, of ensuring Jacksonville refugees have a safe place to land.
This is just the start for Akbari, his wife and children.
“We are trying to make money, trying to save money to buy a car, then save money to buy a house,” Akbari said in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, through a translator. “And for the children, I do my best to send them to school so that they are educated and we want them all to become doctors.”
The Akbari family are just the first drop in a predicted wave of refugees in northeast Florida that local agencies brace for as President Joe Biden’s friendlier immigration policies take effect and COVID-19 travel restrictions are loosening around the world. Organizations resettling or assisting refugees are stepping up or restarting dormant programs for the coming fiscal year, as all predict a significant increase in the number of people allowed into the United States.
The past four years have seen historically low numbers of refugee arrivals and significant staff reductions in local resettlement programs due to former President Donald Trump’s cut in the number of asylum seekers allowed in the country every year, an increase in the control of people who arrived. and the policies on the US-Mexico border that prevented Central Americans from entering the country.
Despite the decline in grant funding, local resettlement programs and their community partners continued to provide needed services even during the pandemic, from immunization events to pantries and mental health support. And although there have been fewer new arrivals, the thousands of refugees who have settled in Jacksonville over the past decade still receive support for issues that arise years after their arrival, such as naturalization formalities or other legal needs.
More refugees are arriving and agencies must prepare
As of June 2, Catholic Charities Jacksonville has only settled 24 refugees in total since October 2019, including nine – including Akbari’s family – this year. The organization generally helps several hundred people each year.
But the travel tap turned on. Staff expect an additional 76 refugees to arrive by the end of September, along with 150 more in 2022.
Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida is now the only other local organization offering relocation services after World Relief Jacksonville closed in 2019 due to a loss of funding. Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities in Jacksonville are limited by the grants they receive and can only serve refugees for a period of time after they arrive, from 90 days to five years, depending on the services needed. Once a refugee has been in the country for more than five years, they are asked to turn to community partners like the New American Welcome Center or Jacksonville Legal Aid for help.
Lutheran social services also sees a change in numbers similar to that of Catholic charities. Lutheran only installed 22 people in fiscal year 2020 and 15 people so far this year. Both represent a significant decrease compared to the 2019 financial year when they installed 129 people. Each year, the volunteer agency, Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services, assigns a number of expected arrivals. In fiscal year 2021, it is 54, although that number may increase. For fiscal year 2022, the expected number is 275 arrivals.
The increase in personnel is an integral part of Lutheran preparation. The department once had nearly two dozen people working in its resettlement department. It had been reduced to eight. They also had to stop offering cultural orientation courses. Much of that will now return thanks to the Office of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is tucked away within the Federal State Department. The office distributes funds in anticipation of more arrivals instead of waiting to shell out money after someone has already arrived.
âWhen we get arrivals, that’s when the agency is able to be paid to pay the salaries of the people handling the cases. When you have no arrivals, you have no ability to have personnel on board, âsaid Cook. âSo they provided us with funding so that we could anticipate and hire staff, define our organizational structure and be able to install more equipment such as computers and desks for them, which we have already started to think. about.”
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Part of the rebuilding of the program also includes renewing relationships with apartment complexes, furniture dealers and volunteers, and scaling up case management services through grants.
âWe applied for a program called Preferred Communities, which is additional case management support for the most vulnerable cases we see. We are delighted that there is increased funding available for this program, âsaid Cook.
Lutheran kept his other programs going, even during the prolonged drought for newcomers. Cook describes Lutheran as a âone stop shopâ for refugees. The organization manages the Consolidated Refugee Services Contract, which is a contract with the state for seven different refugee services: ESOL adult education, legal and pure case management, child care, employment, mentoring and youth. . Cook says all of these programs have continued.
Resettlement program partners, organizations that take over assistance to refugees after their absence from Catholic charities or Lutheran social services, have seen a slower and less noticeable decline in the number of people in need of assistance, although they also expect an increase in the coming years.
Most attribute their constant numbers to the pandemic, which has left many refugees unemployed or deported and in need of assistance other than resettlement or naturalization formalities. People who arrived years ago still need help.
The Jessie Ball DuPont YMCA branch has a new U.S. welcome center that just opened in early 2019, and it’s one of the partners that has grown over the past two years. It’s the first of its kind in Florida, and it offers case management for people who have expired relocation services, a pantry, English lessons, and citizenship test preparation. The center opened the pantry last year.
âWe’re focusing more on the long term and I think we’ll see, as people are here longer, we’ll start to see these numbers increase. We see daily, I think, eight to 10 people a day for case management and it’s like five days a week, âsaid Amber Dodge, senior program director at the center. âWe really want to be able to develop our staff and expand our program and start to really focus on educating them to do things on their own so that they are able to stand on their own feet. “
Jacksonville Legal Aid is another community partner who plays a vital role in a refugee’s journey to residency or citizenship. Andrea PÃnzon, who heads their refugee service, said that when she started out as a lawyer, they would help five to six hundred newcomers each year with a variety of legal services. Over the past four years, that number has fallen to less than 100.
But the need hasn’t gone away just because a lot of new people aren’t coming. Legal Aid lawyers have just changed their services to help more people become citizens.
âBefore the four years, we usually rejected a lot of naturalizations because we didn’t have the capacity and we focused on that initial relocation to get them. [employment authorization documents] or permanent work permits and get them their permanent resident card, âPinzon said. âWe used to reject a lot of naturalizations because we didn’t have the capacity or there wasn’t enough money to cover all of them. So when there were fewer people coming in and fewer people doing EADs and legal permanent residence, we went to a lot of naturalizations. ”
Naturalization will eventually be in the cards for Akbari and his family. They all have special immigrant visas because Akbari worked as a forklift driver for NATO, moving heavy military equipment. They have come a long way in just four months thanks to Catholic Charities and other Jacksonville partners. Akbari and his wife will be starting English lessons soon and are preparing for the eventual arrival of their 15-year-old daughter.
Akbari is “happy” that the number of authorized refugees is increasing.
“I really appreciate [Bidenâs] decision because I know how people live, how all other refugees live in the war zone or under violence, âAkbari said through an interpreter. âI hope that more people from Afghanistan and more refugees from all other countries can come to the United States and live a safe life here.