Oregon lawmakers joined several nonprofit organizations Thursday evening in a virtual discussion on how the state is preparing to welcome hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan as violence within the country mounts following its collapse to the Taliban.
Sen. Kayse Jama, D-SE Portland/North Clackamas, and Rep. Khanh Pham, D-NE/SE Portland, both attended the virtual town hall meeting with members of Oregon’s Afghan community and groups that provide services to those seeking refuge in the state.
Jama said they heard from Afghan immigrants and others who shared stories of how they’re trying to get family members and others with close ties into the United States as they flee from violence and persecution at home. The first-term senator and former refugee had a long career in immigrant services before becoming a legislator.
He described the discussion as “heartbreaking.”
“(Rep. Pham and I) have been meeting with our service agencies, coordinating efforts and trying to focus on what’s going on locally and how we can support refugees as they arrive in Oregon,” Jama said.
According to Jama, the state has welcomed a handful of Afghan refugees so far, but he expects to see as many as 200 to 300 more arriving in Oregon in the coming weeks and months.
The meeting included representatives from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), the Asian Family Center, SOAR Immigration Legal Services, Catholic Charities of Oregon, Unite Oregon, the American Immigration Lawyer Association of Oregon, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Marandas Sinlapasai Garcia, LLC, Lutheran Community Services Northwest and others.
Jama said the conversation highlighted the need for these groups to work collaboratively in offering legal services, housing, healthcare, education and job opportunities to families arriving in Oregon as they attempt to navigate a complex immigration system.
According to Pham, the meeting also served as a place for many of those in Oregon who share a collective feeling of dread over the events unfolding in the Afghan capital and largest city of Kabul to express the emotions they’re going through as more scenes of violence emerge.
Those emotions were put on high alert Thursday with news of the bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed 169 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
“It just felt like it was a really good meeting to come together in our shared grief and fear,” Pham said. “It’s good to not feel isolated, and to feel like we’re coming together to build our own power to respond to this crisis.”
According to Jama, the virtual meeting gave local Afghan residents a platform to talk about their struggles and frustrations in helping family members exit the country. He said many of them expressed terror and dread as they heard from family about what’s transpiring in Kabul.
Amena Qadami is one of those Afghan community members from Oregon who is worried about the fate of her family back in Kabul.
Qadami was born in Afghanistan in 1986 but her family immigrated to Iran shortly after to flee the Soviet-Afghan war. She returned to Afghanistan in 2011 where she worked with the U.S. Army in Kabul.
Over the years, her family dispersed to Turkey and other countries in Europe as corruption within the Afghan government grew and stability deteriorated. Her sister Zahra and two nieces are the only family members who remain there.
She came to Oregon in 2016 where she completed her associate’s degree at Portland Community College. She currently works at Oregon Health & Science University as an office assistant and she has aspirations to attend school there to enter the medical field soon.
Qadami didn’t attend Thursday’s virtual meeting, but she’s been working with Jama’s office to connect to resources that will potentially help evacuate her sister and nieces.
According to Qadami, her sister has applied for a special immigrant visa, but the process isn’t moving as quickly as she’d like. She’s written to Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office for help, as well as her former U.S. military supervisor in Kabul.
Qadami said she’s filled out every form imaginable on her sister’s behalf and checked in with every agency that might be able to help, but so far nothing has worked.
“The Iran border is banned. The Pakistan border is so crowded and hard to get into. Now they are just feeling terrified,” Qadami said. “They don’t know what to do. They tell us every door is closed. I’m feeling really bad that they cannot do anything for (sic) that.”
Qadami said that her support network of friends she’s made through her education at PCC and her coworkers at OHSU have been a huge help in trying to keep her mind off of what fate her family might meet if they’re unable to be evacuated to the U.S. before the Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
While the Taliban in recent weeks has stated it has changed and is now accepting of all Afghans regardless of ethnicity or religion, Qadami feels that’s a lie.
“They are not safe,” she said. “The Taliban will kill them, slowly if they don’t kill suddenly, but they will kill. As far as human rights, I’m worried about that too.”
Both Pham and Jama say hearing stories of these experiences from Oregon residents like Qadami are propelling them to work harder than ever in efforts to stand up for support systems and programs in partnership with local organizations to prepare for an influx of refugees.
The two lawmakers have expressed that they feel Oregon is well-positioned to welcome refugees, and they’re working with Governor Kate Brown’s office to identify areas in which they can remove hurdles for local organizations that provide immigrant services, as well as exploring potential legislative action that responds to challenges those groups and the state face in helping resettle people.
Pham said that legislative action would likely need to wait until February when the Oregon Legislature reconvenes for the 2022 short session, but she isn’t ruling out that a special session could be called to address those concerns sooner.